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Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions: Round 1

by Photo of Gil Santos

The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin today, so it’s time for some first round predictions.

Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions: Round 1

For the past few days, we at CHARGED.fm have been bringing you previews of this year's Stanley Cup Playoff teams. You can check them out here in case you missed them. Now that the start of the first round is finally here, it's time to predict who will advance to the Division finals and who will be going home early.

Eastern Conference:

(Atlantic #1) Boston Bruins (54-19-9, 117 pts) vs. (Wild Card #2) Detroit Red Wings (39-28-15, 93 pts)

This first round series should be a great chess match between two great tactical coaches in Boston's Claude Julien and Detroit's Mike Babcock. While the Bruins are the much more superior team on paper, I think the Red Wings will give them a hard time like in the regular season. The Red Wings got the best of the Bruins in 3 of their 4 regular season match-ups, most recently defeating them, 3-2, two weeks ago.

The Red Wings, statistically, are a middle-of-the-road team. They rank 16th in goals per game and goals against. In special teams, they rank 18th in the power play and 12th in the penalty kill. In addition, they will be without their captain Henrik Zetterberg and their second best defenseman Jonathan Ericsson. If Babcock wasn't coaching this team, I'd probably pick the Bruins in a sweep. But there's something about Babcock-coached teams that makes them hard to beat quickly. In eight postseasons under Babcock, the Red Wings have been eliminated in the first round only twice and they have never been swept. I don't expect that streak to end.

Detroit will play with a lot of heart like they did in the regular season as they endured through all the adversity and injuries. But the Bruins' firepower will prove to be too much as they cannot match-up with the depth at forward that Boston has. 

Prediction: Boston in 6

(Metropolitan #1) Pittsburgh Penguins (51-24-7, 109 pts) vs. (Wild Card #1) Columbus Blue Jackets (43-32-7, 93 pts)

The Penguins draw yet another young and inexperienced club for second consecutive playoffs in the Blue Jackets. 

The Blue Jackets are in just their second postseason in franchise history, last appearing in the 2009. Only R.J. Umberger and Fedor Tyutin are left from that 2009 playoff team. This version of the Blue Jackets are led by their young stud, Ryan Johansen. The 21-year-old scorer came into own this season to lead the team in points (63) and goals (33). Behind Johansen, there isn't much scoring help with Artem Aminsiov and Cam Atkinson as the lone 20-goal scorers. However, the Blue Jackets have a strong goaltender between the pipes in Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrosvky followed up his Vezina Trophy season with a 32-20-5 record, 2.38 goals against average and .923 save percentage. The Russian certainly has the ability to steal some games if he is playing at a top level. 

The Penguins are slowly getting healthy again. They got Kris Letang and Paul Martin, who are important pieces to the blue line, back into the line-up. But, they are still waiting on the return of Evgeni Malkin, who is still a question mark for Game 1. Even without Malkin, the Penguins are heavy favorites to take this series. In the regular season, Pittsburgh won all of five games between the two teams. The Penguins also have been exceptional on special teams with the top ranked power play and the fifth-best penalty kill. The one concern with this team is their goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. After a disastrous 2013 postseason, which led to his benching, Fleury needs to prove he can bounce back from it. Other than that, the Penguins should dominate this series and easily walk into the second round.

Prediction: Penguins in 5

(Atlantic #2) Tampa Bay Lightning (46-27-9, 101 pts) vs. (Atlantic #3) Montreal Canadiens (46-28-8, 100 pts) 

This matchup will be a battle of speed as both teams like to utilize their exceptional skating ability to create offense, which should make it a fun series to watch. The two teams split their season series and all of the games were heavily contested. Three of the four contests were decided in overtime or a shootout. 

The Lightning come in with a top 10 offense and an improved defense thanks to the Vezina-worthy play of Ben Bishop and the improvement of blue liner Victor Hedman. Besides Steven Stamkos, they have plenty of firepower with Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Valtteri Filppula, all whom scored 20 goals this season. 

On the other side, the Canadiens rank eighth in goals allowed and boast the fourth-best penalty kill. They heavily rely on their premier goaltender Carey Price to win them games as they struggle at times to put pucks in the net. The addition of Thomas Vanek has helped their scoring woes little bit. The Candiens averaged 2.7 goals per game down the stretch.

If Bishop was healthy and ready to go, this series would be guaranteed to go seven games. However, with Bishop out for at least Game 1 and no indication when he will be back, it's tough to see the Lightning pulling this series out. While the Habs have a hard time lighting the lamp, I think having Carey Price gives them a huge edge, which should propel them over the Lightning.

Prediction: Canadiens in 6 

(Metropolitan #2) New York Rangers (45-31-6, 96 pts) vs. (Metropolitan #3) Philadelphia Flyers (42-30-10, 94 pts)

This is the 11th playoff installment of the Broadway versus Broad Street rivalry and it shapes up to be an exciting series. The Rangers and Flyers haven't met in the playoffs since the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals, where the Flyers won in five games. This year, the two teams split their four regular season games with the Rangers coming out on top in their most recent clash 3-1 last month.

Under first-year head coach, Alain Vigneault, the Rangers are playing a much more offensive-minded brand of hockey than in previous years. However, they have not forgotten their defensive responsibilities as they rank fourth in goals against and third in the penalty kill. Netminder Henrik Lundqvist recovered nicely from a slow start to the season, finishing up with a 33-24-5 record, 2.36 goals against average, and .920 save percentage. The Blue Shirts' also have one of the most dangerous third-lines in the NHL with the trio of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, and Benoit Pouliot. Despite their stronger focus on offense, the Rangers have been inconsistent in the scoring department as they ranked 18th in the league in goals scored, which makes Martin St. Louis a big X-factor if he can get it going.

The Flyers boast the eighth best offense in the league led by their captain Claude Giroux. After a 15-game goal drought to start the season, Giroux got back to his All-Star form to lead the team in points (86) and assists (58). Also, he received a load of offensive help from Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek. Both Simmonds and Voracek broke the 60-point plateau for the first time in their careers and set lifetime-highs in goals as well. The Flyers are also strong in both the man advantage and penalty kill, where they rank 7th in both categories. 

Philadelphia's biggest weakness, however, is at their blue line and goaltending, which gives the Rangers a huge advantage. The team that plays better defense and gets quality goaltending usually wins. Whether it's Steve Mason or Ray Emery in net for the Flyers, Lundqvist is by far the superior goaltender over the two and that makes the Rangers my pick to take this one. 

Prediction: Rangers in 6

Western Conference

(Pacific #1) Anaheim Ducks (54-20-8, 116 pts) vs. (Wild Card #2) Dallas Stars (40-31-11, 91 pts)

The Ducks and Stars are very similar teams as both like to play an up-tempo style of hockey and can score in bunches. Also, they both heavily rely on two studs to lead their offense. For the Ducks, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and for the Stars, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. In the regular season, the Stars had the Ducks' number, taking the two of their three contests. 

It'll be tough for the Stars to pull out an upset, but it's not impossible. First of all, they absolutely must get more offensive support from the other lines besides the Seguin-Benn-Nichushkin line. Antoine Roussel, Ryan Garbutt, and Cody Eakin have worked well together, scoring five goals as a trio in the last 10 games. Secondly, the Stars will need netminder Kari Lehtonen to be on top of his game. Lehtonen had a solid regular season with a 33-20-10 record, 2.41 goals against average, and .919 save percentage, but the playoffs are a whole different animal and they need him to bring his game to a higher level. They also must test the Ducks' rookie goaltender Frederick Andersen early. This is the area where the Ducks are most vulnerable. With Jonas Hiller falling off the rails towards the end of the reason, the Ducks are forced to start the inexperienced Andersen. If the Stars can score early goals on Andersen and destroy his confidence, they can make it a long series. 

In the end, I think the Ducks will take this series. While the Ducks' forwards not named Getzlaf or Perry aren't the best, they are definitely better than what the Stars are putting on the ice. They also have a huge edge in experience with most of these Starsjust getting their first taste of postseason hockey. In addition, the Ducks should be able to take advantage of the Stars' weak blue line. Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley are a decent two-way pair, but they shouldn't be your top defensemen on a great team.

Prediction: Ducks in 6

(Central #1) Colorado Avalanche (52-22-8, 112 pts) vs. (Wild Card #1) Minnesota Wild (43-27-12, 98 pts)

This is the one series where I wouldn't surprise if it ended in an upset.  While the Avalanche went 4-0-1 against the Wild in the regular season, there are a couple things going for them. The Avalanche will be without arguably their best player, Matt Duchene, for at least the first two games in this series. The Wild have an advantage in playoff in experience as most of the Avs' players don't know what it's like to be under the playoff lights. In addition, the Avs on paper probably have the worst blue line in the playoffs. While statistically they rank 14th in goals allowed, those numbers are a bit misleading because they have Vezina Trophy candidate Semyon Varlamov bailing them out. The Avalanche defense gives up the sixth most shots per game in the league and if they didn't have Varlamov between the pipes, they probably would not be in this position. 

Despite all of this, the Avalanche should have the upper hand in this series. The Avs' blue line is weak, but can the Wild take advantage of it? The Wild have nice goal scorers in Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, and Matt Moulson, but after that, there is a lot of left to be desired. Also, the Wild have Illya Bryzgalov as their starting goaltender, which means there is a great chance he will implode some time during the series. In his last two postseasons, Bryzgalov has been abysmal, posting a save percentage under .900 in both years. Even without Matt Duchene, the Avs have a lot of offensive weapons in Nathan MacKinnon, Paul Statsny, Ryan O'Reilly, and Gabriel Landeskog to pepper Bryzgalov. 

Prediction: Avalanche in 5 

(Central #2) St. Louis Blues (52-23-7, 111 pts) vs. (Central #3) Chicago Blackhawks (46-21-15, 107 pts.) 

The Blues come limping into the playoffs, losing their final six games and costing themselves the Central Division title. Because of their misstep, they draw the defending champion Blackhawks. In the regular season, the Blues took three out of five games between the squads with the Blackhawks winning the most recent two contests. 

St. Louis are a bit banged up right now as they may be without David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Brendan Morrow, and Vladimir Sobotka for Game 1. They are also expecting Patrick Berglund to be out of the lineup for the first game. The Blackhawks look to be fully healthy with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews expected to be ready on Thursday. This series could be a very quick one unless the Blues get healthy fast and net minder Ryan Miller returns to top form. Miller has been shaky in his short stint with the Blues, posting a 10-8-1 record with a 2.47 goals against average and .903 save percentage. Miller will need to step it up big time if he wants to keep his team competitive in this series.

I think the Blues' best players will play, but it won't be enough as the Blackhawks have way too much firepower for the Blues to deal with. In addition, I think it may take awhile for the Blues' injured players to get their legs back under them and by the time they do that, it'll be too late.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 5

(Pacific #2) San Jose Sharks (51-22-9, 111 pts) vs. (Pacific #3) Los Angeles Kings (46-28-8, 100 pts)

Personally, I think this series is the one to watch in the first round. It will be a battle between two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders who really hate each other.  and it is a rematch of last year's Western Conference Semi-Final, which the Kings won in 7 games. This time around the Sharks will have home ice advantage, which is important given that last postseason, the home team went undefeated in that series. In the regular season, the Kings had the upper-hand, going 3-1-1 against the Sharks. 

The Sharks will field probably the best team they've ever had in recent memory. They have a ton offensive firepower headlined by Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Logan Couture. They also have solid bottom six forwards with the emergence of Tom Wingels and James Sheppard. The return of rookie dynamo Tomas Hertl could prove to be huge for the Sharks as he gives them yet another offensive option. While they can score in bunches, the Sharks are also very responsible in their own end, giving up the fifth least goals in the NHL. The one concern is goaltender Antti Niemi, who has been inconsistent all season. 

On the Kings' side, they are undoubtedly the best defensive team in the league. The Kings gave up just 2 goals per game, the least in the NHL, and only 26.2 shots per game, which was the second least in the league. They also pepper their opponents with 31.6 shots per game, which ranks sixth in the league. The Kings are capable of rolling four strong lines and have depth down the middle with Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, and Jaret Stoll. And of course, they have one of the best goaltenders in the league with Jonathan Quick. However, the Kings' finishing ability is a little bit worrying. With all the talent they have at forward, it's puzzling that they averaged the fourth least goals per game. Perhaps Marion Gaborik can remedy that in the playoffs, but we'll see. 

I expect this series to be hard-hitting and very low scoring. After it is all said and done, I think the Sharks will score just enough to top the Kings and avenge their 2013 loss in the semifinals. 

Prediction: Sharks in 7

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