I will give you your pick of the litter, the Super Bowl, March Madness, College Football season, Sunday at the Masters, whatever you want because I’m taking the NHL playoffs over all of it. It is my favorite time of year and I don’t think that any other playoff in sports matches up to the NHL. Roughly 2 months of the most intense, bone crunching, sacrificial hockey you can imagine. Game 7′s, overtime thrillers, crowd silencing saves, and horn blaring goals, the NHL playoffs has it all. It takes 16 wins to claim Lord Stanley as your own, but 4 losses can end your season and your dreams.
Maybe it’s just me but I feel like the first round matchups get better every year. There is a new format which you can see in the bracket below and without making you wait any further, let’s get into the Eastern Conference matchups.
WARNING: THERE WILL BE USE OF ADVANCED STATS, IF YOU ARE UNFAMILIAR, GET FAMILIAR HERE. http://www.secondcityhockey.com/2013/12/4/5167404/nhl-stats-made-simple-part-1-corsi-fenwick
1. Anaheim vs 4. Dallas
The Ducks enter the playoffs as the top seed in the Western Conference after an 9-3-1 finish to the season. The Stars slid into the 2nd Wild Card spot in the last week of the season even though they only went 4-4 in April. Both of these teams have 2 dynamic forwards in their lineup, the Ducks with Perry and Getzlaf while the Stars counter with Benn and Seguin. Getzlaf had another great season notching 31 goals and 56 helpers, as did Perry going 43 and 39. But a couple guys in the Lonestar state had pretty good years as well. Dallas doesn’t get the publicity of a lot of other franchises, but Benn and Seguin carried them this year with career years. Benn had 34 goals and 45 assists while Seguin made a huge splash pouring in 37 goals with 47 assists. These two teams are both middle of the pack when it comes to possessing the puck, the Stars are 5th in Corsi % out of the 8 Western Conference playoff teams, while Anaheim sits 6th. The Ducks are 1st in the whole league though in PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage) and gave up the 4th lowest number of shots throughout the season. You know what they say, defense wins championships. Possibly a big advantage for the Ducks with that #1 PDO in 5v5 score close, is that the Stars have the 24th ranked save % in 5v5 score close. One stat that makes me look twice at the Ducks though is that they started the season 20-0-2 at home, but since have only gone 9-8-2. Stephane Robidas was traded from the Stars to the Ducks earlier this year, many thinking it was the defensive piece the Ducks needed to put them over the top, he hasn’t played much since shattering his leg earlier this year but could be impactful. The Stars have their own duo of solid defensemen in Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski who will need to be on their game. We know Kari Lehtonen will start for the Stars, but the Ducks situation is a little different. The rumor is that the Ducks are going to go with rookie Frederik Andersen over Jonas Hiller, who has struggled lately. This also appears to point Hiller out of town at the end of the season, as he is a free agent.
X Factor- Dallas Defense. The Ducks don’t get a ton of praise for the defense they play, but the Stars scoring chances will be few and far between. What we all do know is that the Ducks have a dangerous offense, and if the Stars can’t keep them from putting lumps of points on the board, the offense will be left hopeless.
Picks: Joe- Ducks in 5. Bob- Ducks in 6. Trev- Ducks in 5. Jeremy- Ducks in 5. Trav- Stars in 7. NHL ’14- Stars in 7.
2. San Jose vs 3. Los Angeles
A rematch of a low scoring 7 game series last year where the winning team scored more than 2 goals just twice. The Sharks come into the playoffs once again as one of the top teams during the regular season and they will try to kick the moniker of being playoff choke artists. The Kings have been a top team in the league since they snuck into the playoffs as an 8 seed two years ago and won the Cup. The Kings sat in 3rd place in the Pacific division for most of the year and may be a bit overlooked in the powerful West. The Sharks have great group of really good forwards and the combination of Jumbo Joe Thornton feeding Little Joe Pavelski has been unbelievable this year. Pavelski netted a career high 41 goals this year and Thornton did his thing by contributing 65 assists. The Kings are #1 in the whole NHL in Corsi % this season, the Sharks aren’t far behind at 5th in the league. These teams possess the puck as well as anybody, with big forwards to hold onto it once the swift puck moving defensemen move it up the ice. The Kings have 5 of the top 10 players in 5v5 score close Corsi % and 3 of those are in the top 5. Johnathan Quick is the 10th ranked goalie in 5v5 save % while Niemi is 23rd. Which brings me to Niemi, because although it is likely he will be named the starter, Todd McLellan hasn’t named his starter. Niemi had a below average season by his standards and while backup Alex Stalock only started 24 games, his stats were far superior. Despite all these stats pointing me to the Kings, my gut tells me this is San Jose’s year to make some noise.
X Factor- Logan Couture. The Kings first defensive pair is stout, and you know they will be out against the Thornton/Pavelski unit as much as they can, especially when the Kings are at home. The secondary scoring for the Sharks will have to show up to avoid heading home early yet again and that is led by Couture.
Picks: Joe- Sharks in 7. Bob- Sharks in 7. Trev- Kings in 7. Jeremy- Kings in 6. Trav- Kings in 6. NHL ’14- Kings in 6
1. Colorado vs 4. Minnesota
It is hard to believe that the Avalanche were 15th out of 15 teams in the West last year and now as the 2014 playoffs begin they are the Central division champs. The Central division that has 5 teams of the 8 in the Western playoffs. On the other side of this matchup is a Wild team who has huge expectations and hasn’t done anything to deliver upon those. After the signing of Parise and Suter 2 summers ago, the Wild faithful expected to be a Cup contender but were quickly dismissed in 5 games to Chicago last year. They once again face and unfriendly matchup in the first round against the young, upstart Avs. Another season series number that stands out here, as the Avalanche went 4-0-1 against the WIld, the only loss being a shootout, which don’t happen in the playoffs. The Avalanche have a ton of young talent that can absolutely fly. Mackinnon, Stastny, Landeskog, O’Reilly, these youngsters have carried the Avalanche this season but there are two things missing. Playoff experience and Matt Duchene. The Wild have an edge in that aspect of the game and one other advantage they have is Ryan Suter. He is a minute munching D man who is one of the best in the game. But is he enough? Because between the pipes is a big question mark with Darcy Kuemper hurt, Ilya Bryzgalov will be getting the nod in game 1, and probably the entire series. He had a .911 save % in 12 games with the Wild but as we all know his head could be anywhere else in the universe at any time. At the other end, after the famous mugshot from earlier in the year, Varlamov is 2nd in the NHL in 5v5 score close save % right behind Rask. Possession wise, both of these teams rank in the bottom 8 in the league in Corsi %, the 2 worst out of Western Conference playoff teams. Minnesota finished the year 6-1-1 and look to ride that momentum into the postseason.
X Factor- Semyon Varlamov. The Avalanche are one of the worst possession teams in the entire league and when it comes to postseason hockey that could kill them. They gave up almost 100 more shots than they took this season and Varlamov kept them in games. Pairing poor possession time with an inexperienced blue line could rest a lot of burden on the shoulders of the Colorado goalie, but can he hold up?
Picks: Joe- Wild in 7. Avalanche in 7. Trev- Wild in 5. Jeremy- Avalanche in 7. Trav- Avalanche in 4. NHL ’14- Avalanche in 7.
2. St. Louis vs 3. Chicago
A month ago if I told you these two teams were meeting in the first round, you would have been licking your chops. Some of the luster of this matchup may have been lost with the number of injuries for both sides and the Blues current 6 game losing streak. However, both of these teams are loaded with talent and have the potential to make deep runs. This is another one you need to pull the ice bags out for, because these division rivals are just that, rivals, and they do not like each other by any means. The Blackhawks are 2nd in the league in 5v5 score close Corsi % while the Blues sit 7th in that category. The Blues and Hawks are both in the top 5 in shots against, but the Blues are in the bottom of the league in scoring while the Blackhawks sit near the top. Toews and Kane who have missed time with injuries are both expected to be back for game 1, obviously a huge plus for the Blackhawks. Oshie and Backes are expected to return for the Blues for game 1 but they will be without Morrow, Bergland, and Tarasenko for at least game 1. Not such good news for the Blues. The Blackhawks have depth up front and on the back end and if they get the goaltending from Crawford they are oh so dangerous. The Blues have a good defense and a good goalie in Miller even though he has struggled lately, but they have trouble scoring, especially as of late with their point producers out of the lineup. Both these teams specialize in possessing the puck but only one of them specializes in scoring.
X Factor- Ryan Miller. With the number of injuries to the blues up front and the lack of pucks going in the net for the Blues lately, Miller will have to be the Ryan Miller of the 2010 Olympics if the Blues are going to grind this series out. The Blackhawks have the firepower to score in bunches and at this point if they get to 3 they may be safe.
Picks: Joe- Blackhawks in 6. Bob- Blues in 6. Trev- Blues in 6. Jeremy- Blackhawks in 7. Trav- Blackhawks in 4. NHL ’14- Blackhawks in 7