SI Now: Stanley Cup Playoff first-round preview
On Monday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Sarah Kwak breaks down the most intriguing match-ups heading into the first round of the NHL Playoffs.
These rankings are excerpted from the April 21 edition of Sports Illustrated magazine, which contains a full NHL playoff preview and feature story on Teemu Selanne's farewell postseason appearance.
1. Boston Bruins
Believe it: This year's Bruins are much stronger than the team that reached the Stanley Cup Final last June. Not only are they getting consistent goaltending from Tuukka Rask (.930 save percentage, best in the Eastern Conference), but they also finally have some scoring support. Boston had by far the best goal differential in the league (+87), thanks in part to veteran winger Jarome Iginla. He spurned the Bruins in favor of the Penguins at the trade deadline last year but signed with Boston as a free agent over the summer and scored 30 goals. (He was one of 10 Bruins to score 10 or more goals.)
With four solid lines and a defense led by colossal Zdeno Chara, there are very few weaknesses on this team. Even the power play—a sore spot for Boston in postseasons past—has been humming along at 21.7%, the third best in the NHL. Durability may be the only issue, as Iginla sat four of the team's last seven games. The Bruins' gritty style takes a physical toll, but it works—this team has played more postseason hockey since 2009 than any other team in the league. Boston is the Goliath of the East.
Bruins-Red Wings first round series breakdown
ON THE DOORSTEP
2. Montreal Canadiens
Boston's biggest challenge could come from its historical rival, the Canadiens. Montreal went 2-1-1 against the Bruins in 2013--14 and was the only Eastern Conference team to hold them to less than two goals per game. No surprise there—defense is how the Canadiens win. They led the league in blocked shots, and their excellent penalty kill (85.1%) is bolstered by Olympic gold-medal-winning goalie Carey Price, whose career-best .927 save percentage ranked third among goalies with at least 40 starts this season.
Canadiens-Lightning series breakdown
3. New York Rangers and 4. Philadelphia Flyers
Though the Penguins won the Metropolitan Division with a week to go in the season, it was the Rangers and the Flyers who looked strongest at the end. Both teams rebounded from abysmal starts. After the Olympics, Philadelphia averaged 3.22 goals per game, while New York allowed just 2.10. Though Flyers center Claude Giroux has been hot since Jan. 1, with a league-high 49 points, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and a solid blue line can stifle him in a short series.
Flyers-Rangers series breakdown
WAIT 'TIL NEXT YEAR
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins played unevenly after Sochi, going 11-9-4. Injuries have been a problem all season; Pittsburgh easily led the NHL in man-games lost with 526. The roster should be at something close to full strength for the first round—and that includes center Evgeni Malkin, who missed the last three weeks of the season with a hairline fracture in his foot. But chemistry will be hard to establish, and scoring depth will be crucial, with opponents keying on Sidney Crosby, who led the NHL with 104 points.
Penguins-Blue Jackets series breakdown
6. Detroit Red Wings
In danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990—and with Henrik Zetterberg (back surgery) and Pavel Datsyuk (knee) sidelined after the Olympics—the Red Wings turned to youngsters Gustav Nyquist, who tied for the league lead with 14 post-Sochi goals, and Tomas Tatar, who had 15 points after the break. Now, with Datsyuk back in the lineup and Zetterberg skating in practice, Detroit is a dangerous but wounded postseason opponent.
KWAK: Fresh faces save Red Wings' season
7. Tampa Bay Lightning
After March 1, the Lightning--went 4-4-2 against playoff teams. Goalie Ben Bishop (.924 save percentage) was a bright spot before he hurt his wrist on April 8. He's expected back for the first round, but his injury might ensure that Tampa Bay is eliminated in a flash.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
As for the hardworking Blue Jackets—they've already achieved more than most people expected. They'll be outmatched by the Penguins—Pittsburgh won all five of its games against Columbus. The Jackets have one edge: They have nothing to lose. Expect them to play that way. — Sarah Kwak
MUIR: Eastern Conference storylines
1. Anaheim Ducks
Even at their best, the Ducks can run hot and cold, in part because coach Bruce Boudreau changes line combinations liberally in search of scoring. More often than not, he finds it: Anaheim led the NHL with 3.21 goals per game this season. The two players he has kept together all year, center Ryan Getzlaf (31 goals) and right wing Corey Perry (43 goals), a former Hart Trophy winner, combined for 169 points. While Jonas Hiller has been the team's No. 1 goalie for most of the season, backup Frederik Andersen has actually been better. (His .923 save percentage in 28 games was better than Hiller's .911 in 50.) Boudreau may have a tough call ahead, but it's a nice problem to have. The Ducks are the one team in the West that has shown it can win any type of game, be it a slugfest or a shootout. To finish the playoff marathon, they'll have to win both.
Ducks-Stars series breakdown
ON THE DOORSTEP
2. St. Louis Blues
The Blues are superbly balanced and are not reliant on any one player to carry them. The blueline corps, led by Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, is vastly -underrated—in fact it is one of the NHL's best, able to frustrate opposing forwards with smart positioning and rapid puck movement. St. Louis excels at quick and disciplined neutral-zone play, clogging lanes for foes. The only things the Blues don't have going for them are their playoff -history—they haven't been past the second round in 13 years—and their recent play. Last month's trade with the Sabres for goalie Ryan Miller, the team's lone star, was thought to be the final piece of St. Louis's postseason puzzle, but an 0-6-0 run to end the season raises doubts that the Blues will survive the spring.
Blues-Blackhawks series breakdown
3. Los Angeles Kings
Goalie Jonathan Quick is good enough to steal a series for a Kings team that sometimes struggles to score—even after the trade-deadline pickup of winger Marian Gaborik. Los Angeles has the personnel to ring up goals—forwards Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter have both scored 30 before—but seems more comfortable playing defense. With a big, smart, mobile blue line, led by Drew Doughty, this team is built for the tight-checking playoffs.
Sharks-Kings series breakdown
4. Colorado Avalanche
With a fleet of young forwards who can create and score, the Avalanche are dangerous opponents. But Colorado allows too many shots (32.7 per game), and its playoff inexperience is a lot to overcome.
Avs-Wild series breakdown
WAIT 'TIL NEXT YEAR
5. San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are the league's perennial tease: never bad but never good enough to win it all. That's the case again this year. San Jose peppered goalies with more shots than any other team this season, and with only four players who performed in the Olympics the Sharks enter the playoffs fresher than many rivals. But star forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton seem to wilt under playoff pressure, which doesn't bode well for a club that must play the beastly Kings in Round 1.
6. Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks beat the Blues 4--2 on April 6 without injured stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, a victory that showed their depth. Young forwards Brandon Saad (19 goals) and Andrew Shaw (20) are still getting better, and veteran winger Patrick Sharp, who leads the team with 78 points, had a career season. Neither Toews (upper body) nor Kane (left knee) has played a game in April, but both are expected to be ready for the playoffs. How ready, however, remains unknown, and that uncertainty hurts Chicago's chances to defend its title.
7. Minnesota Wild
With goalies Josh Harding (multiple sclerosis) and Darcy Kuemper (upper body) both ailing, Ilya Bryzgalov went 7-1-3 down the stretch for the Wild. It was a nice return to prominence for Bryzgalov, who had washed out as a big-money free agent with the Flyers in 2013 and was toiling with the woeful Oilers when Minnesota grabbed him at the trade deadline. The Wild don't have an offensive game-breaker, and their penalty killing—27th in the league at 78.8%—isn't going to cut it; they need to keep the score down in order to win.
8. Dallas Stars
The Stars have two formidable scoring threats: Tyler Seguin (37 goals, 84 points) and Jamie Benn (34 goals, 79 points). But after them, the team's attack drops off. Defenseman Alex Goligoski, their next leading scorer, had just 42 points. To beat Dallas, the formula is simple: Shut down the top line. Goalie Kari Lehtonen, a steady veteran, was 33-20-10 during the regular season, but he will need to be superhuman for the Stars to have a chance. — Brian Cazeneuve
MUIR: Western Conference storylines