The 2015 NHL playoffs will start Wednesday, and the race has never been tighter. One would like to predict these things, but in this age of hockey parity, even fewer sure things can be found than in years past. Except for perhaps the New York Rangers – they are as close as we get. Otherwise: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

16) Pittsburgh Penguins

Current form: A far cry from their glory days, Pittsburgh wandered through the bulk of the regular season in a haze of injuries and mediocrity, and finished the season with only three wins in their last 10 games.

How they can win: Total on-ice transformation or, barring that, medical miracles.

How they can lose: They may start the post-season without three of their top four defencemen. Olli Maata, Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff are all listed as injured.

MVP: Kris Letang. Letang notched 11 goals and 43 assists through 69 games this year, and his individual Corsi (shots on goal, shots at the net, and shots at the net blocked) was eighth overall among defencemen in the NHL. This is why he’ll be sorely missed in the lineup.

Player to watch: Marc-Andre Fleury. For all the firepower potential up front, as has been the case in playoffs past, Pittsburgh will live and die by Fleury. Can he improve on his middling regular season 2.32 goals-against average (GAA)? Probably not.

Key stat: Despite everything, Pittsburgh’s offensive zone possession is good (52.8%).

Why should you care? Pittsburgh have been on a long decline. Should they get knocked out in the first round, expect a rebuilding to begin.

15) Winnipeg Jets

Current form: Riding an emotional high. This is the first time the Jets will be in the playoffs since the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011. There hasn’t been playoff hockey in Winnipeg since 1996. Statistically, the Jets are 6-3-1 in their last 10.

How they can win: Upsets. Drawing Anaheim in the first round looks like a tough go, but the Jets could surprise. Winnipeg have a better power play (18.1% versus Anaheim’s 15.9%), and a slightly better penalty kill (81.7% vs. 80.8%).

How they can lose: Inexperience. The Jets aren’t used to playoff hockey, and they suffer through lack of depth.

MVP: Goaltender Ondrej Pevalec. He grabbed 22 wins this regular season, and posted a 2.28 GAA. More importantly, he’s hot right now, finishing the season 9-2-1 in his last 12 games. The Jets will need him to be stellar.

Player to watch: Lee Stempniak. In his 18 games with the Jets this year, Stempniak managed 10 points. In his 53 previous games with the Rangers, prior to his trade, he only grabbed 18. He’s been a reliable third line winger.

Key stat: The Jets are a surprising 10th in the NHL in goals-against.

Why should I care? It’s the Jets. You can’t wish them anything but good luck.

14) Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings
Pavel Datsyuk (13) is crucial to the Red Wings’ hopes. Photograph: Jean-Yves Ahern/USA Today Sports

Current form: Detroit quietly racked up 43 wins and 100 points in the East, but finished the season on a mediocre run, with five wins and seven losses in their last 12. However, one of those wins came against their first-round rival, Tampa Bay, who the Red Wings beat 4-0 on 28 March.

How they can win: Execute on the power play – as they have all year. The Red Wings were ranked second in the NHL through the regular season, converting with the extra man 23.8% of the time.

How they can lose: Goaltending. Who will the Red Wings turn to in net? Stalwart Jimmy Howard had a tough year, posting a 2.44 GAA in his 53 games. More promising is Petr Mrazek, who managed a 2.38 GAA through 29 games. One of them will have to improve a lot to give the offence a shot at keeping pace.

MVP: Pavel Datsyuk. He’s been rested thanks to a lower body injury recently, but the veteran scorer will be counted on more than ever to work his magic.

Player to watch: The pressure is on 25-year old Gustav Nyquist. Despite 27 goals in 54 games this year, Nyquist also hit a rut, going 21 games with only two goals into the end of March. He’s looking better going into the post-season: five goals in his last 10 games.

Key stat: Detroit are 17th overall on the penalty kill (80.9%).

Why should I care? This playoff run might (finally) mark the end of an era in Detroit. If they fail to advance far, there may be a few retirements coming – including behind the bench.

13) Vancouver Canucks

Current form: The Canucks went 6-3-1 down the stretch, and first-string goaltender Ryan Miller returned for the last game of the season Saturday night.

How they can win: Special teams. At even strength, the Canucks’ possession numbers may not be terrific. But on the power play, they convert 19.6% of the time, putting them eighth overall in the NHL. When down a man, Vancouver’s even more impressive. The Canucks kill penalties 85.7% of the time.

How they can lose: A question on defence. The Canucks were very poor at the back in the early going this season. They improved this winter, allowing two or fewer goals against in 10 of their last 20 games. That performance will be tested immediately.

MVP: The Sedin twins. When on form, Henrik and Daniel are a terrifying one-two punch. A year ago, the Hockey News wondered if it was time to trade the twins. They combined for 38 goals and 152 points this season.

Player to watch: Ryan Miller. Felled by a knee injury on 22 February, Miller returned in Vancouver’s final season win against Edmonton, stopping 23 shots. He likely won’t start the post-season, but if his replacement, Edie Lack, falters, Miller will be expected to do better than he has the last few times he saw playoff hockey – he went 2-4 with the Blues last year, posting a lackluster 2.49 GAA.

Key stat: Vancouver’s Corsi-for percentage is a drab 49.5%.

Why should I care? Vancouver have struggled to get out of the first round since going to the Cup final in 2011. Can they finally do it?

12) Calgary Flames

Current form: Similar in many ways to their first-round rival Canucks. Calgary went 6-2-2 in their last 10 games. The Flames secured their playoff berth by handing a loss to 2014 Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings, ensuring there would be a new Cup winner in 2015.

How they can win: As all year, against all apparent odds. The Flames struggle in some parts of the ice, but they are quick and can score, often late in games. The Flames are fifth in the NHL for goals per game, averaging 2.91.

How they can lose: Taking penalties. Despite having respectable offensive possession while short-handed, the Flames rank 22nd in the league on the penalty kill, so they can’t afford to take unnecessary trips to the box.

MVP: Perhaps the most valuable man on this bench is actually the one standing behind it, head coach Bob Hartley.

Player to watch: Johnny Gaudreau. The diminutive rookie forward had a terrific year, notching 24 goals and 64 points overall. Teams will take him on physically, but he’s proven adept at finding open ice.

Key stat: Calgary’s even strength possession numbers are bad overall, but surprisingly good when they’re leading on the road.

Why should I care? In the fall, Calgary were thought to have little chance at the playoffs, let alone the second round.

11) Minnesota Wild

Current form: Riding a hot goalie for longer than most imagined, the Wild will offer a challenge – just like last year.

How they can win: Be more than just goaltending. The Wild have been blessed with confidence between the pipes, but to progress, they’ll need to make better use of their advantages. That means the power play, ranked 28th overall in the NHL this year, must improve.

How they can lose: Goaltending runs out of steam. Minnesota will go into these playoffs more certain about their goalie than last season, but what if the magic disappears?

MVP: Goaltender Devan Dubnyk has been a standout this year, since moving over to the Wild from the Coyotes. He’s posted a 1.78 GAA in his 39 games with the Wild this year, and backed the team to a seriously impressive 28-9-3 record since he joined.

Player to watch: Can Mikael Granlund step up? The Wild have the potential for goal-scoring, but the young Finnish forward has yet to live up to the hype surrounding him at draft time a couple years ago. In Finland, he was known as a point-per-game man. These days, he’s managed just 39 overall in 68 games this year.

Key stat: Minnesota killed penalties 86.6% of the time in the regular season – the best in the league.

Why should I care? It could all implode, or it could win the West.

10) New York Islanders

Nassau Coliseum
The Islanders played their final season at the Nassau Coliseum in 2014-15. Photograph: Kathy Kmonicek/AP

Current form: The Islanders are finally looking like a balanced club. More consistent scoring up front and stronger defence than in years past. Most notably, they have a trustworthy goaltender.

How they can win: Keep shooting. At even strength, the Islanders were first overall in the NHL for shot attempts (the NHL includes in this total shots on goal, team goals, missed shots, and shots blocked by opponents). This also means the forward lines have to maintain production. Key names: John Tavares, Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee.

How they can lose: Special teams. The Islanders had difficulty killing penalties this year, only managing to do so 78% of the time (only good enough for 26th spot overall). They weren’t much better with the man advantage – 16th overall in the NHL. Both need to improve.

MVP: Jaroslav Halak. With Halak, the Islanders answered a long-standing question between the pipes. He faced a lot of shots this year (1,656 – 14th most overall), and posted a save percentage of .914. He’s not perfect, but he can dazzle (as he has in past post-seasons).

Player to watch: Captain John Tavares. Always watch John Tavares. His leadership will dictate a lot for the Islanders.

Why should I care? Who doesn’t want a subway series?

9) Ottawa Senators

Current form: Terrific. The Senators went a barnstorming 23-4-4 to come from nowhere and clinch a playoff berth.

How they can win: Keep the energy flowing. In early February, the Senators were 14 points out of a playoff spot, but after calling up goaltender Andre Hammond (“the Hamburgler”) from the AHL, the Sens went on a tear.

How they can lose: The energy stops. Hammond has faced an average of 29 shots per game in his 24 appearances for Ottawa. That’s a lot. And the playoffs area much more intense atmosphere than the regular season. Can he keep it up?

MVP: Quite obviously, given all the above, Andrew Hammond.

Player to watch: Mark Stone. In his third attempt with the Senators, Stone has finally found a groove. Through 19 games with the Sens in 2013-14 he only found the back of the net four times. This year? Twenty-six goals in 80 games, with another 38 assists to go with them.

Why should I care? Ottawa’s a Cinderella story. How quickly does midnight hit?

8) Nashville Predators

Current form: Solid all year, but lost six in a row – all to western conference rivals, three in overtime – going into the playoffs.

How they can win: Regain some mojo, along with key players. Eric Nystrom and Mike Fisher are listed day-to-day, out with undisclosed lower body injuries. That, and keep the defence healthy and deep. Nashville are a scary defensive side (Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Seth Jones) – big, and able to move the puck.

How they can lose: They have to start converting on the power play. Despite the talent, Nashville are a lowly 24th in the NHL with the man advantage.

MVP: Goaltender Pekka Rinne had a standout season, posting a 2.18 GAA in 64 games, and a .929 save percentage.

Player to watch: Filip Forsberg. The young forward has had a dynamite year, notching 26 goals and adding another 37 assists.

Why should I care? Nashville need to finally live up to their billing.

7) Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin has been at his dangerous best this year. Photograph: Eric Bolte/USA Today Sports

Current form: Much like their first-round foes, the Islanders, but with a better power play and a bit more depth. The Caps finished the regular season with a respectable 6-3-1 record.

How they can win: Frustrate their opponents. The more time teams playing against the Caps spend in the penalty box, the better Washington’s chances become. The Capitals led the NHL in power play scoring, converting 25.3% of the time.

How they can lose: Goaltender Braden Holtby had a great year, with a 2.22 GAA through 73 games. But he’s carrying a heavy load. He faced 2,044 shots this season, the most out of any goalie in the NHL. The next three below him on that list (Rask, Schneider, Smith) backstopped teams that didn’t make the playoffs. If Holtby runs out of gas, it could be trouble.

MVP: Alex Ovechkin. Always expected to cause problems for the opposition, Ovechkin is coming off a great year. His 53 goals put him first overall in the NHL, a full 10 ahead of Steven Stamkos. And Ovie’s 81 points was good enough for fourth-overall among scorers.

Player to watch: Anyone on defence. The Capitals have managed to shore up a very solid defensive squad, and should the scoring continue up front, guys like Brooks Orpik and Mike Green could push the scales in Washington’s direction.

Why should I care? They could face the Rangers in a repeat of an epic 2013 series.

6) Tampa Bay Lightning

Current form: Tampa Bay score goals – more than anyone else in the league (262 in 82 regular season games). They’ve won three straight coming into the playoffs.

How they can win: Keep scoring. Tampa Bay are an offensive menace, with the likes of Steve Stamkos (40 goals this year) as a notable threat. But also watch the Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov-Ondrej Palat line, each of whom put up over 60 points in the regular season.

How they can lose: Goaltender Ben Bishop is very good, but has little playoff experience. Couple that with a few injuries at defence in Tampa Bay, and the back end of the operation could get a little shaky if pressed.

MVP: Stamkos. As usual, he’ll be expected to put up big numbers. Likely he will, and those goals will probably be very pretty. Highlights!

Player to watch: Ryan Callahan. After coming aboard from the Rangers last year, Callahan stumbled (six goals in 20 games), but this year he’s quietly found a groove, and led Tampa by example. He grabbed 24 goals and 54 points in his 77 appearances. They need him to keep churning away.

Why should I care? When on form, Tampa are a very exciting team to watch.

5) St Louis Blues

Current form: Very fine. The Blues cruised to a 109-point season, putting them third overall in the NHL. They can score, they can save, and, unlike 2014, this time they’re healthy.

How they can win: Stick to the program. The Blues have won six straight heading into the post-season, they’re sixth overall in goals-per-game (2.9), fourth overall on the power play (22.1% of the time, they convert), and a respectable eighth on the penalty kill (83.8%).

How they can lose: History repeats. The Blues are now familiar contenders, but have failed consistently to live up to the regular season expectations. With healthy forwards like TJ Oshie, a revived defensive corp, and strong goaltending, that could change. But it won’t be easy.

MVP(s): Goaltenders Jake Allen and Brian Elliott. The pair split the season almost in half, and were each impressive. Allen posted a 2.28 GAA and four shutouts in his 37 appearances, and for his part, Elliott went 2.26 GAA with three shutouts in his 46. Either one gives St Louis a chance every night.

Player to watch: Vladimir Tarasenko. His highlight-reel goals this year were eye-popping. He racked up 73 points, good enough for 10th overall, and is always dangerous.

Key stat: St Louis are second in the NHL for shots against per game, with 27.2. Watch for a lot of blocked pucks.

Why should I care? Maybe this is finally the year for St Louis?

4) Montreal Canadiens

Carey Price
Carey Price (left) is congratulated by center Alex Galchenyuk after their victory in a shootout against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Photograph: Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports

Current form: The Habs appear to be on auto-pilot. Not a high-scoring team, of late they’ve relied on goaltender Carey Price to keep them moving forward.

How they can win: The Canadiens need to start scoring more often. The team’s 2.6 goals per game was only good enough for 20th overall in the NHL this year. If they want to ensure Price doesn’t get overworked, they need to find a way to keep ahead of things. Forward Max Pacioretty has been injured, and his imminent return will help.

How they can lose: Montreal needs to find a way to score on the power play. While the Habs’ penalty kill is quite good (seventh overall), they only manage to score with the man advantage 16.5% of the time (23rd in the NHL). Expect the first round matchup with Ottawa to be a physical one – if the Habs can’t take advantage more often, they’ll be in trouble.

MVP: Carey Price won 44 games this year – the most of any goaltender in the history of the Canadiens franchise. GAA: 1.96. Save percentage: .933. That’s all you need to know.

Player to watch: Price. It’s all about Price. Or whoever starts scoring.

Why should I care? Montreal are looking to repeat an appearance in the Eastern final.

3) Anaheim Ducks

Current form: Solid. Anaheim enter the post-season having six of their last 10 games.

How they can win: The dynamic duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will be the main factor for the Ducks. The two combined for 58 goals and 125 points this year. Backup from the likes of Matt Beleskey and Ryan Kessler (79 points combined) will be necessary.

How they can lose: Despite their lofty standing, the Ducks are terrible on the power play, converting only 15.7% of the time, a brutal 28th overall in the NHL. Luckily they fare better on the penalty kill (15th overall), but they need to use their opportunities better.

MVP: Some combination of Getzlaf and Perry.

Player to watch: Goaltenders – probably Frederik Andersen will start. Andersen has never looked like a prize-winning goalie, and the Ducks don’t have a great back-up either in John Gibson.

Why should I care? Anaheim could suffer an upset in the first round. But if not, they could go deep.

2) Chicago Blackhawks

Current form: The Blackhawks finished the year with 102 points overall, but a 5-7 record to end the season (including two losses to divisional rivals the St Louis Blues).

How they can win: There is never any reason to count out the Blackhawks once the post-season begins. They can kill penalties, they score at key moments, they physically dominate, and they are experienced playoff vets. Should sniper Patrick Kane return shortly with a repaired clavicle, there’s no reason to think Chicago can’t contend as always for the Cup.

How they can lose: If the regular season trends hold, the Blackhawks will falter if they can’t find a way to score on the power play. They only did it 17.6% of the time in the regular season (20th overall), and as they sat in 16th spot in goals-per-game, a few more with the man advantage will help.

MVP: Jonathan Toews. The captain is the emotional heart of the team. Where his head goes, so go the Blackhawks. He is called “captain serious” for a reason – he’s focused on one thing always: winning.

Player to watch: Corey Crawford. There are always doubts whether Crawford is the real deal. He’s proved everyone wrong before. If he can again, Chicago has hope.

Why should I care? The Blackhawks are a perennial threat. They will be entertaining.

1) New York Rangers

Current form: Healthy, and thus appear potentially unstoppable.

How they can win: The New York Rangers have built one hell of a squad. It’s physical, quick, it can score, it can defend, it can tend to the goal. On paper, there’s no question why the Rangers are at the top of the pile (aside from their league-leading 113 points).

How they can lose: Uh, they can’t?

MVP: Everyone. But more specifically, Henrik Lundqvist, who disappeared to injury for a large part of the season (only to have his role filled admirably by Cam Talbot, his backup), but who returns for the playoffs. Lundqvist changes games single-handedly (see: 2014 playoff run).

Player to watch: Rick Nash. Nash gets a lot of grief about his playoff output (four goals in 37 playoff games) versus what he can potentially accomplish (42 goals in 72 regular season games). Pressure is on Nash to come through in the clutch for once. He needs to finally step it up.

Why should I care? Because, right now, they look like the odds-on favourite to win it all. If they don’t, the loss will be crushing.


Colin Horgan

The GuardianTramp

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