Stanley Cup playoff preview: Round 1

Stanley Cup

Welcome to the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs and the beginning of a new format. No longer will teams be seeded from 1-8 in their conference, but instead will have to play out of their division first. Teams are no longer re-seeded after the opening round and will face the other winner in their division in the second round.

THN gets you prepared for the action, which will start Wednesday, April 12. Below is our introduction to each series, insider analysis from CBC’s Kevin Weekes and TSN’s Jeff O’Neill, and THN’s prediction.

And be sure to vote on our poll: Who do you think will win the 2014 Stanley Cup?


EASTERN CONFERENCE

BOSTON BRUINS vs. DETROIT RED WINGS
Introduction: A classic Original Six matchup welcomes the Detroit Red Wings to the East side of the playoff bracket and it won’t be a warm reception. The Bruins are the most complete team in the East and asserted their dominance by going through the East with a 12-4 record last playoff season. But the Wings are also an unfortunate draw for Boston. If any team, no matter its drawbacks, is capable of a shocking upset, it’s the experienced Red Wings machine. Just last season, Detroit upset Anaheim in the first round and took Chicago all the way to Game 7. This season, Gustav Nyquist should be even better for them.

Bruins Insider Breakdown: I think it’s a foregone conclusion Boston is going to come out of the East. They’re playing almost perfect hockey. Jarome Iginla has been an extremely good fit, and they have depth and skill. They’re the team to beat. The only mitigating factor is whether Zdeno Chara can maintain his level of play throughout the playoffs. As we saw last year, he seemed to tire in the final. Coach Claude Julien knows what buttons to push with his players, and they have a template in place to win. Julien may be a hardass, but at the end of the day his direction is the right one for that team to go. - Jeff O’Neill, former NHLer and current TSN analyst. Follow him @odognine2.

Red Wings Insider Breakdown: With so many players out of the lineup – including their two best in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk – the job Mike Babcock and the Wings have done is impressive. They just seem to work their rear ends off and Babcock gets them to commit to his system, because they have no other chance to win with so many young guys coming up from the AHL. The pedigree of the Wings organization is as good as any, and if Datsyuk and Zetterberg can return, even at less than 100 percent, for the playoffs, there’s every chance the Red Wings exceed expectations and do some damage. – O’Neill.

Top Bruins Fantasy Players: David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Jarome Iginla
Top Red Wings Fantasy Players: Gustav Nyquist, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen

Players with Cup rings
Bruins: 13
Red Wings: 8

Average age
Bruins: 28.2
Red Wings: 28.4

Playoff record past three seasons
Bruins: 33-21
Red Wings: 15-15

Prediction: As crazy as it seems to pick against Boston, you can understand why someone would go with Detroit: they’re the Red Wings. Every time Detroit gets underestimated they stare down their naysayers and continue doing their business as usual. But with all due respect to Detroit, injury concerns will linger over some of their best players, while Boston enters playing some of the best hockey in the league. The Red Wings are always a dangerous upset team, but the Bruins will be the ultimate challenge. BRUINS IN 5

MONTREAL CANADIENS vs. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Introduction: The timing of the new playoff format couldn’t be any worse for these two teams. Under the old 1-8 set up, both the Canadiens and Lightning would hold home-ice advantage in a Round 1 series as the No. 3 and No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. But this year, under the new divisional arrangement, the two will instead faceoff against each other in the opening round. Over the past two playoffs, the Canadiens and Lightning combine for one post-season appearance and one post-season win, so somebody will bust out of their funk. Both teams have been given a boost from their goalies this season, which doesn’t bode well for the Lightning, since Ben Bishop may not be available. He injured himself April 8 on this awkward play.

Canadiens Insider Breakdown: The Canadiens raise their level of play when they face the Bruins and might have the best chance of any team to beat Boston. Carey Price is clearly a guy who can backstop a champion. Montreal played a really tight defensive game early in the season and they’ve fallen away from that of late, but if they get back there and Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty can produce offense, they can be dangerous. A lot will depend on guys like Alexei Emelin and Andrei Markov’s consistency. But if Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk can take the next step, Montreal can make some noise. - O’Neill.

Lightning Insider Breakdown: Ben Bishop has had a Vezina Trophy-type season, but can he take his game to the next level and deal with incredible playoff pressure? Ryan Callahan has been an excellent fit and will be an X-factor for the Lightning. And most importantly, everyone knows Steven Stamkos is an elite goal-scorer, but is he ready to assert himself and say, ‘This is my team and I’m going to put it on my back?’ This is a big moment for him. Some of their younger players will get their first taste of NHL playoff hockey and the way they respond will be important. - O’Neill.

Top Canadiens Fantasy Players: P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Thomas Vanek
Top Lightning Fantasy Players: Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, Victor Hedman

Players with Cup rings
Canadiens: 3
Lightning: 1

Average age
Canadiens: 28.8
Lightning: 26.9

Playoff record past three seasons
Canadiens: 4-8
Lightning: 11-7

Prediction: If the Lightning have to go through this whole series without their towering starting goaltender, it will be difficult for them to overcome Carey Price. The Habs, led by their gold-medal-winning goalie, finished strong with a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 and Price allowed only 12 goals in his final six games. Anders Lindback (3.05 GAA, .888 SP) is a noticeable step down from Bishop. How far can Steven Stamkos carry a team? We’re about to find out. CANADIENS IN 6

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Introduction: Marc-Andre Fleury had a .915 SP and 2.37 GAA this season, but those numbers no longer matter. The Penguins goalie hasn’t had a post-season save percentage better than .900 since 2009, when they won the Cup. As potent a lineup as the Penguins have, Pittsburgh will only go as far as its defense, discipline and goaltending takes it. The Blue Jackets should be just happy to make the playoffs for the second time in franchise history, but they have a mind to achieve much more. Columbus was swept in its one and only other playoff series, but if Sergei Bobrovsky can stand up to the Penguins offense, they will be celebrating a win this time. Against Sidney Crosby on the playoff stage, this could be a coming out party for Columbus’ Ryan Johansen.

Penguins Insider Breakdown: The concerns I have for the Pittsburgh Penguins are on defense. They’re not that tough back there. The other X-factor is how Marc-Andre Fleury performs in net. His whole tenure with the Penguins is going to come down to these playoffs. You’ve got Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but you wonder about this team’s depth and discipline. The good news is that Crosby and Malkin are so talented, they can flip a switch and carry a team on their back right to the final. But can they beat Boston? That’s the question. - O’Neill.

Blue Jackets Insider Breakdown: The signing of Nathan Horton was a positive step in this team’s development. Columbus has a great goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky and Ryan Murray is going to be a star for them on the back end one day.  But for the Blue Jackets to succeed in the playoffs, they have to continue to be one of the hardest-working teams out there. They understand they don’t have a boatload of superstars to depend on, but they know they have to do it by committee. If they continue that hard work and get great play from Bobrovsky, they could win a round or two. - O’Neill.

Top Penguins Fantasy Players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal.
Top Blue Jackets Fantasy Players: Ryan Johansen, James Wisniewski, Brandon Dubinsky.

Players with Cup rings
Penguins: 9
Blue Jackets: 1

Average age
Penguins: 29.2
Blue Jackets: 26.2

Playoff record past three seasons
Penguins: 13-15
Blue Jackets: 0-0

Prediction: For a team that just made the conference final last season, Pittsburgh has an awful lot of uncertainty around its contender status. Neither of the teams the Penguins knocked out last post-season (Ottawa and the Islanders) were close to returning to the playoffs over an 82-game schedule and the one returning team they did play (Boston) swept them aside. Pittsburgh has dealt with more injuries than any other team this season, but will have almost everyone back for Round 1. If they are upset, there will be a lot of calls to change the roster. And even though the Jackets don’t have a lineup of stars, their effort is relentless. PENGUINS IN 5.

NEW YORK RANGERS vs. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Introduction: Both of these teams have been playoff regulars over the years, but this will be their first series since meeting in the 1997 Eastern Conference final. New York and Philadelphia both had awful starts to their seasons: New York winning three of its first 10, including a 9-2 loss to San Jose; Philadelphia dropping nine of its first 12 and changing its coach on Oct. 7. Since then, Claude Giroux has been an MVP-type scorer, Henrik Lundqvist has been the game-breaker he always was, and both teams enter the weaker side of the NHL playoff bracket with legitimate hopes of reaching the Stanley Cup final. Ryan McDonagh, who gained Norris attention near the end of the season, is a unique talent in this series to keep an eye on.

Rangers Insider Breakdown: With some of their older players – Brad Richards, Martin St-Louis – the window on this team might be closing sooner than later. The Rangers offense has been up and down all year long, and it’s weird to see that with all their skilled players. The one X-factor is Henrik Lundqvist: can he get into that zone? When he plays in the Olympics, it’s like he turns into a brick wall, but he hasn’t been able to play the same way in the NHL playoffs so far. In fairness, their lack of offense puts stress on him, but Lundqvist still has something to prove. - O’Neill.

Flyers Insider Breakdown: Since Craig Berube took over as coach, he’s stressed defense first and battling for pucks; that’s why the Flyers have turned their season around. But can Kimmo Timonen, who’s getting up there in age, be a catalyst for their defense? That’s a big question. Their forward unit is extremely talented, and if they play Pittsburgh, they seem to own that team. The goaltending circus in Philly seems to never end, and now it’s on Steve Mason to prove he’s their guy for the long term. He’s played well enough to get them back into playoff contention, but he’s not exactly a proven factor in the post-season. - O’Neill.

Top Rangers Fantasy Players: Martin St-Louis, Derek Stepan, Rick Nash.
Top Flyers Fantasy Players: Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds.

Players with Cup rings
Rangers: 3
Flyers: 3

Average age
Rangers: 27.4
Flyers: 28.4

Playoff record past three seasons
Rangers: 16-21
Flyers: 9-13

Prediction: The Flyers’ forward unit can come at you in all sorts of ways and, with seven 20-goal scorers, will beat you in a shoot out. The Rangers offense has been much less than what the names on the roster would suggest it would produce. This will put all the pressure on the Rangers defense, and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, to slow down and contain the Flyers. It should be a long and hard-fought series, with the loser having to face some hard roster questions this summer. FLYERS IN 6.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ANAHEIM DUCKS vs. DALLAS STARS
Introduction: The Stars make a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08, when they lost in the conference final to Detroit. The team has a completely new core which, led by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, burst onto the scene and competed better than expected against a loaded Western Conference. The Ducks have an underrated amount of talent throughout their forward group. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry drive the offense, but Nick Bonino, Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Cogliano and more fill out the most dangerous offense in the league. Anaheim also has tremendous depth in goal with Frederik Andersen, Jonas Hiller and even rookie John Gibson, who has won both of his starts, with a .964 save percentage.

Ducks Insider Breakdown: Bruce Boudreau empowers his players to make plays and doesn’t think he’s better than the team. They get production from all four lines. We know what Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will bring, but look at the emergence of Cam Fowler, Nick Bonino, Kyle Palmieri and Andrew Cogliano, a guy who really impresses me. He has 20 goals with no power play time. They’ve got leadership in spades with Teemu Selanne, Getzlaf, Perry, Saku Koivu, Francois Beauchemin and now Stephane Robidas. And they’ve got a world-class goalie in Jonas Hiller. I’m not sure there’s any team that wants the Ducks in the first round. – Kevin Weekes, former NHL goaltender and current Hockey Night in Canada analyst. Follow him @KevinWeekes.

Stars Insider Breakdown: What impresses me about the Stars is their blinding speed. They play such an up-tempo game and just keep bringing the heat at all times. And I don’t know if there’s a more dynamic combo in the league right now than Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Those two guys are hungry, unafraid, motivated and versatile. And they generate offense in different ways: they can beat you off the rush or off the cycle. The pair is such a load to defend against, because they’re always in motion. If Kari Lehtonen can play the way he’s capable of, I think they can be a competitive playoff team.  - Weekes.

Top Ducks Fantasy Players: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne
Top Stars Fantasy Players: Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alex Goligoski

Players with Cup rings
Ducks: 4
Stars: 8

Average age
Ducks: 28.2
Stars: 28.6

Playoff record past three seasons
Ducks: 5-8
Stars: 0-0

Prediction: The Ducks won the old Pacific Division title last season and were heavy favorites in their first round match with Detroit. And though they looked dominant at times in that series, they played too withdrawn in others and let the Wings hang around until it was too late. Anaheim hasn’t made it past the first round of the playoffs since 2008-09 and analytic stats suggest they’re a good upset bet during this post-season as well. But it’s hard to imagine Dallas upsetting Anaheim. The Ducks shouldn’t take them lightly, though. DUCKS IN 6

SAN JOSE SHARKS vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS
Introduction: The Sharks-Kings series in the second round of the 2013 playoffs must have been excruciating for Sharks fans to watch, even though they very nearly knocked off their Los Angeles rivals. The home team won each game between these two last spring and five of the seven games were decided by one goal. And in Game 7, in Los Angeles, the Sharks were the better team, especially late in the game. San Jose out shot Los Angeles 26-18 in the last game, including a 14-4 edge in shots in the final period. For all their effort, the Sharks just couldn’t get the timely goal they needed against Jonathan Quick and their nail-biting loss can best be summed up by this save in the last five minutes of Game 7:

Kings Insider Breakdown: The Kings have depth, talent, experience and the best goalie in the world in Jonathan Quick. He does things you think are impossible to do, and he does them all the time. He’s a violently aggressive athletic goalie. He’s like a crab – any direction he moves, he’s impressive and competitive and balances a surfer-dude calm with a stone-cold competitiveness. Los Angeles plays a heavy game and everyone in the lineup knows what playoff hockey is about. And Darryl Sutter is a great fit for that team and a coach who has evolved. You’d be a fool to count them out. - Weekes.

Sharks Insider Breakdown: Joe Thornton is often maligned, but I love him as a player and as a person. He cares about his teammates and competes. He embraces the emergence of a Logan Couture and a Joe Pavelski without envy or jealousy and that filters through the group. Brent Burns is one of the X-factors on the team. He can play and be a star at two positions. Tomas Hertl is electric. There’s tons of speed with this group – Patrick Marleau can still fly – and Raffi Torres brings a different element to them when healthy. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is so solid positionally. And the guys there love Antti Niemi. - Weekes.

Top Kings Fantasy Players: Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams
Top Sharks Fantasy Players: Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau

Players with Cup rings
Kings: 16
Sharks: 5

Average age
Kings: 27.2
Sharks: 28.3

Playoff record past three seasons
Kings: 27-17
Sharks: 17-17

Prediction: While it’s a shame one of these Cup contenders has to be eliminated in the first round, the Sharks and Kings are going to put on a show for hockey fans. If last season’s series between these two is any indication, this one will be long and bruising, with the loser being eliminated by mere inches. SHARKS IN 7

COLORADO AVALANCHE vs. MINNESOTA WILD
Introduction:
Before the season, both teams would have been considered on the bubble for the playoffs and somehow they both made it in, while avoiding a matchup with one of the West’s established big hitters. The Avalanche actually became one of those favorites under coach Patrick Roy, beating out both St. Louis and Chicago for the division title. Their young forwards emerged as a force, finishing with the fourth-best NHL offense and Semyon Varlamov put himself squarely in the Vezina debate. But the Wild provide an interesting matchup. Ryan Suter can play half the game and the team’s strong defense fully supports their cavalcade of goalies. If Ilya Bryzgalov is the guy for Minnesota, he’s a wild card, to say the least.

Avalanche Insider Breakdown: I love what Patrick Roy has done with the Avalanche: he sees his relationship with the players as a partnership. All their young star players have been convinced and taught to play on both sides of the puck. Everyone thought they had an AHL defense going into the season, but all they’ve done is play well with consistency. Semyon Varlamov has had the benefit of three goalie coaches – Roy, J-S Giguere and Francois Allaire – and it shows.  I don’t know if they have enough defensive depth over a seven-game series, but I love their team and they play a power game. - Weekes.

Wild Insider Breakdown: Minnesota hasn’t had a goalie who’s been healthy for the entire season in the past few years and that’s somewhat unsettling. Josh Harding has been excellent when he’s been able to play, and Darcy Kuemper has stabilized things in his absence. Mikael Granlund also jumps out for me. He’s calm and composed, but very competitive. Granlund is undersized, but when he was injured, Jason Pominville’s game went down a notch. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have made them a much more competitive team, to say the least. They don’t have a Blues-, Kings-, or Hawks-caliber D-corps, but defense is still part of that organization’s DNA. - Weekes.

Top Avalanche Fantasy Players: Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly.
Top Wild Fantasy Players: Zach Parise, Matt Moulson, Mikael Granlund.

Players with Cup rings
Avalanche: 4
Wild: 3

Average age
Avalanche: 27.5
Wild: 27.5

Playoff record past three seasons
Avalanche: 0-0
Wild: 1-4

Prediction: Colorado’s young forwards have exploded for this team all year, but six of the top seven Avalanche scorers are entering either their first or second NHL post-season experience. How much will that impact this series? Defense is the name of the game in the playoffs, which is Minnesota’s specialty. But this Colorado team has exceeded expectations all season long and finished on a high, going 8-1-1 to chase down the division title. Look for them to carry that momentum. AVALANCHE IN 5.

ST. LOUIS BLUES vs. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Introduction:
The Blues have become cold at exactly the wrong time, losing their last six games to relinquish the division title to Colorado and line up a first round date with Chicago. Not exactly the set up you’d like as a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, but with no champions in the lineup. The championship Hawks, meanwhile, are intact and still more complete than any other NHL squad. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews haven’t played since March, but are expected to be ready for the playoffs. The Blues don’t have a game-breaking scorer like the Hawks do and even if Toews and Kane aren’t 100 percent, Chicago still has Patrick Sharp and post-season dynamo Marian Hossa.

Blues Insider Breakdown: In Ryan Miller, you get a prize fighter in net with a world-class pedigree. And people forget about Steve Ott, a useful guy who can play in any situation. David Backes is a great leader and a good two-way player. On the back end, they’re mobile, skilled and big. They’re not the most physical group, but they’re one of the best units in the league 1-through-7. Up front, they score by committee; they have industrial, blue-collar-type offensive players, but they don’t have any game-breakers – and individual player who can take a game over. But that’s my only worry with this team. - Weekes.

Blackhawks Insider Breakdown: They’re the Red Wings 2.0 when they were humming along winning Cups, in terms of the organization, their philosophy, and how they play: a puck-possession game, a skilled game, a give-and-go game – and most importantly, you don’t get in trouble for making a play. Skill and thinking are encouraged. They defend as hard as they attack, and when you look at their back end, it’s amazing to think Nick Leddy is their sixth defenseman. If Leddy is in Toronto, what is he, their No. 2 or No. 3? All their veterans can contribute and are valued. and that’s important. This team has no weaknesses. They’re a complete group. - Weekes.

Top Blues Fantasy Players: Alexander Steen, David Backes, T.J. Oshie.
Top Blackhawks Fantasy Players: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp.

Players with Cup rings
Blues: 0
Blackhawks: 21

Average age
Blues: 27.6
Blackhawks: 28.3

Playoff record past three seasons
Blues: 6-9
Blackhawks: 21-15

Prediction: St. Louis, THN’s pre-season Stanley Cup pick, doesn’t look in good shape at the moment, but lucky for us, everything is reset in the playoffs. Getting Chicago out of the gate probably isn’t what the Blues had in mind, but it’s the series they wanted all along against their Cup-winning divisional rival. No more excuses. By acquiring Ryan Miller, St. Louis put its chips on the table and we’re about to find out what this Blues team is all about. BLUES IN 7