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2014 NHL playoffs preview: Picks, predictions and more

Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Jonathan Toews (19) and the Blackhawks defend their Cup, while Jarome Iginla (12) seeks his first.

The NHL promised its fans that the 2013-14 campaign would be "A Season Like No Other," and man, did the league deliver. From the Olympic build-up through the expanded slate of six outdoor games, the season provided a never-before-seen array of highlight moments and appointment viewing that kept fans engaged like never before.

Fitting, then, that it dovetails into a postseason like we've never seen before ... although the inspiration for it might seem awfully familiar.

The new system advanced the top three teams in each division, along with two wild cards who qualified based on their record, regardless of division. Those two teams now meet the two division winners, with the second- and third-place teams in each division facing off.

The second round is where the changes become more glaring. Unlike previous seasons, there is no re-seeding. A bracket determines the match-ups, regardless of who wins in the first round.

So, for example, the winner of Boston-Detroit meets the winner of Tampa Bay-Montreal no matter what, whereas in the past the highest surviving seed in the conference would have earned the luxury of playing the lowest seed.

If it looks like March Madness, that's no accident. If there was one flaw in the NHL's old system -- at least, from a business persective -- it's that interest was always highest in the first round when the maximum number of teams were involved. The league needed to invert that pyramid. It needed a system that would grab attention early on and allow it to build over the duration.

NHL playoff breakdowns: Avalanche-Wild | Blackhawks-Blues | Stars-Ducks | Kings-Sharks
Bruins-Red Wings | Lightning-Canadiens | Penguins-Blue Jackets | Rangers-Flyers

And what better hook to snare the public than a format that's predictable and easy to gamble on? It's perfect for office pools and so simple that anyone can -- and hopefully will -- follow along ... especially if there are a few bucks on the line.

No telling if the whole bracketology thing will catch on, but it does make for an interesting starting point from a marketing perspective. And it creates some intriguing storylines.

MUIR: Eastern Conference storylines | Western Conference | Complete schedule

In the East, the Bruins take on the Red Wings for the first time since 1957, when Gordie Howe was throwing elbows at Leo Boivin and a year before Johnny Bucyk was traded to Boston.

The winner of that series faces the survivor of Montreal-Tampa Bay matchup, the second postseason meeting ever between the two franchises. The Lightning swept the Habs back in 2004 on the way to their only Stanley Cup, and are one of just two teams the Canadiens have never beaten in a playoff series.

What the Western match-ups lack in history they make up for with cruelty. At least two teams that earned 100-plus points through the regular season will be heading to the driving range after the first round. The injury-riddled Blues hope to survive against the defending champion Blackhawks, who are getting stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane back just in time for the opener. In the opposite bracket, the Sharks and the Kings face-off for the third time in four years, with the winner on a collision course with the Ducks -- if they can squeeze by a Stars team that is returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, that is.

And the intrigue extends beyond the pairings. There are goalie controversies brewing in Anaheim, where starter Jonas Hiller already has been benched for the opener, and San Jose, where Alex Stalock could get the nod over Antti Niemi. In Minnesota, they're counting on a stopper (Ilya Bryzgalov) who spent part of his season in the ECHL, and in Tampa they're hoping a back-up (Anders Lindback) can hold the fort long enough to allow Vezina-candidate Ben Bishop time to get back into the fight. And in Pittsburgh, they're waiting to see if the Marc-Andre Fleury who led the Penguins to back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup finals is gone forever, replaced by the one who has stumbled through each of the last two postseasons (4.63 goals-against average in 2012, 3.52 in '13).

There are other issues looming too, like whether service in Sochi will be a factor in terms of confidence or fatigue, and how teams with significant injury issues -- poor St. Louis -- will fare.

And then there are the faces. Will Teemu Selanne head off into retirement after one final waltz with the Cup? Will Jarome Iginla finally win a championship with the Bruins? Can Patrick Roy the rookie coach mimic the success of Patrick Roy the rookie goalie? Can Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau shed the choke-collars once and for all?

Those answers are still two months away. Your bracket is due today.

Playoff Power Rankings: How the 16 teams stack up by conference

Playoff Predictions
 
 
ALLAN MUIR
 
  FIRST ROUND   SEMIFINALS   CONFERENCE FINALS   STANLEY CUP FINAL  
E A S T E R N
W2 over A1
             
A3 over A2
 
W2 over A3
     
over
 
M1 over W2
 
M1 over M2
       
M2 over M3
     
M1 over W2
   
 
W E S T E R N
C1 over W1
     
P3 over C3
   
C3 over C2
 
C3 over C1
       
W2 over P1
 
P3 over W2
       
P3 over P2
             
 
Kings in six: I really want to pick the Presidents' Trophy-winning Bruins to go deep, but they drew the Kryptonite match-up with Detroit in the first round. Their ouster will throw the entire Eastern Conference into chaos. With softer teams surviving, look for Pittsburgh, led by a highly-motivated Marc-Andre Fleury, to vanquish their Ghosts of Failures Past and move on to face the battle-scarred Kings. I like Los Angeles to come out of the West for all the same reasons the Kings were likeable in 2012: they're committed to punishing defense, they exact a physical toll in all three zones, and they're so bloody deep. Add in the championship muscle memory that virtually every member of this team carries, plus a game-breaking sniper in deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik, and the pieces are in place for their second drink from the Cup in three years.
 
 
BRIAN CAZENEUVE
 
  FIRST ROUND   SEMIFINALS   CONFERENCE FINALS   STANLEY CUP FINAL  
E A S T E R N
A1 over W2
             
A2 over A3
 
A1 over A3
     
over
 
M1 over W1
 
M2 over M1
       
M2 over M3
     
A1 over M2
   
 
W E S T E R N
C1 over W1
     
P1 over C2
   
C2 over C3
 
C2 over C1
       
P1 over W2
 
P1 over P3
       
P3 over P2
             
 
Bruins in five: The Bruins are the most balanced team in the league. They can score, defend, tend goal, skate, bump you around, and win almost any type of game. There just isn't a notable weakness there, nor a reliance on one superstar whose slump or injury could cost the team a playoff series. The Bruins weren't far from the championship in 2013 and this season's team is better.
 
 
SARAH KWAK
 
  FIRST ROUND   SEMIFINALS   CONFERENCE FINALS   STANLEY CUP FINAL  
E A S T E R N
A1 over W2
             
A3 over A2
 
A1 over A3
     
over
 
M1 over 6
 
M3 over M1
       
M3 over M2
     
A1 over M3
   
 
W E S T E R N
C1 over W1
     
P2 over C2
   
C2 over C3
 
C2 over C1
       
P1 over W2
 
P2 over P1
       
P2 over P3
             
 
Bruins in five: The Sharks will finally get their taste of the Stanley Cup Final, but not even this big, powerful group can beat the Bruins. With four balanced and experienced lines, a productive and imposing defense, and predictably excellent goaltending from Tuukka Rask, Boston has no apparent flaws in its lineup. Even the B's power play, which almost thwarted them in 2011 and was no help in 2013, has been among the league's best this season. And unlike the Sharks in the ultra-physical and competitive West, Boston's trip to the final won't be as taxing. Moreover, home-ice advantage through the playoffs adds to the B's chances. They're an impressive 30-7-3 at the TD Garden.
 
 
MICHAEL BLINN
 
  FIRST ROUND   SEMIFINALS   CONFERENCE FINALS   STANLEY CUP FINAL  
E A S T E R N
A1 over W2
             
A3 over A2
 
A1 over A3
     
over
 
W1 over M1
 
M3
over W1
       
M3 over M2
     
A1 over M3
   
 
W E S T E R N
C1 over W1
     
P3
over C3
   
C3
over C2
 
C3 over C1
       
P1
over W2
 
P3 over P1
       
P3
over P2
             
 
Bruins in six: The majority of the NHL's best teams have come from the Western Conference, and there's no way anyone escapes from three best-of-seven series without their fair share of bumps and bruises. Whichever team wins the West gets the genuine pleasure of facing off against the Bruins in the Cup final, a team that can trade goals, hits, and saves with the best of them, and was able to rest Patrice Bergeron, Jarome Iginla, Tuukka Rask, and Zdeno Chara down the stretch. Get ready for another black and gold parade down Causeway Street.
SAM PAGE
 
  FIRST ROUND   SEMIFINALS   CONFERENCE FINALS   STANLEY CUP FINAL  
E A S T E R N
A1 over W2
             
A2 over A3
 
A1 over A2
     
over
 
W1 over M1
 
M2 over W1
       
M2 over M3
     
M2 over A1
   
 
W E S T E R N
W1 over C1
     
P2 over C3
   
C3 over C2
 
C3 over W1
       
W2 over P1
 
P2 over W2
       
P2 over P3
             
 
Sharks in 5: The Western Conference has been so dominant this season, the only tough choice here is whether I like the Sharks or Blackhawks more. Picking the Sharks has historically been the easiest way to bust your bracket, but with Douglas Murray gone, Brent Burns finding another gear at forward, and rookie Tomas Hertl healthy, I think this team has finally found its identity.
 
 
GABRIEL BAUMGAERTNER
 
  FIRST ROUND   SEMIFINALS   CONFERENCE FINALS   STANLEY CUP FINAL  
E A S T E R N
A1 over W2
             
A3 over A2
 
A1 over A3
     
over
 
W1 over M1
 
W1 over M3
       
M3 over M2
     
A1 over W1
   
 
W E S T E R N
C1 over W1
     
P3 over C3
   
C3 over C2
 
C3 over C1
       
P1 over W2
 
P3 over P1
       
P3 over P2
             
 
Bruins in seven: The Kings are an enticing pick with their resurgent offense and outstanding goaltending, but the Bruins' defense and Tuuka Rask's dream season should lift Boston to the Stanley Cup. If nagging injuries continue to haunt L.A. backliners Drew Doughty and Robyn Regehr, then goalie Jonathan Quick will face even more pressure to replicate his 2012 Conn Smythe performance. Boston's Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have been excellent while commanding the Bs dangerous front line, and last year was just too close for them not to get there again. If this series happens, however, it will go the distance.
 
 
 
 
Sleeper Team
 
Columbus Blue Jackets :: Jason Mowry/Icon SMI

Muir
Red Wings: The wild Wings barely extended their playoff-appearance streak to 23 years, but the team that starts the second season this week against Boston will be considerably more dangerous than the one that limped through months of devastating injuries. Pavel Datsyuk is back, and capable of changing both the offensive and defensive dynamics of the team. When he's on the ice, Detroit controls the puck and that's when the Wings are really, really dangerous. Daniel Alfredsson and Johan Franzen are healthy, adding a layer of veteran experience to the top nine. But things really get interesting with the possible return of Henrik Zetterberg. The captain is hoping to practice with the team on Thursday, just eight weeks after having back surgery and he could return to the lineup if Detroit, which went 3-1 against the Bruins this season, can tough out a win in Boston and extend the set to Game 5 and beyond. This team knocked off the favored Ducks in the first round last year and extended the eventual champion Blackhawks deep into Game 7. They've been comfortable in the role of underdog before...and they could be ready for an encore.

Cazeneuve
Kings: Some teams are just built for the playoffs. The Kings are strong and fast and they have a goaltender, Jonathan Quick, who can steal any series. They also made one of the best late-season acquisitions this spring, snaring Marion Gaborik to complement Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar. L.A. has proven, as recently as 2012, that teams do not need great regular seasons to be great in the postseason.

Kwak
Red Wings: Just six weeks ago, the Red Wings' shot at a playoff berth looked like it was slipping away. With stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk injured and the team playing lethargically through the doldrums of the season, it seemed their streak of 22 consecutive postseason appearances might be broken. Enter Gus Nyquist. The youngster injected some life into Detroit's game with highlight reel goals and energy on every shift. He won't carry this team, but he also doesn't have to. Datsyuk is healthy, Zetterberg is skating. The Red Wings' defense gets better with every game, and when it comes down to it, coach Mike Babcock knows how to win. Period.

Blinn
Blue Jackets: The Jackets just wrapped up their 14th season as an NHL team, and capped it off by qualifying for the postseason for just the second time. They've built, and now been rebuilt with star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and emerging scorer Ryan Johansen headlining a roster full of blue-collar players. It's time for this team to deliver the franchise's first-ever playoff win, which is certainly possible against the Pittsburgh team that's rife with flaws for them to expose.

Page
Stars: With less resistance in the East, it's tempting to pick the Blue Jackets (or Kings, who are ever menacing), but I want to throw the Stars some love. With Kari Lehtonen backing arguably the NHL's most aggressive neutral zone attack, the Stars could easily dispatch an overachieving Ducks team in the first round. If only Dallas hadn't traded their best defenseman (Stephane Robidas) to Anaheim at the deadline...

Baumgaertner
Blue Jackets: It's a bit of a banal comparison, but the Jackets maintain some similar qualities to the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Kings. Much of the talent in Columbus is home-grown or acquired through trade, they've been battling for a spot in the playoffs for more than two weeks, and they have a goalkeeper who can alter the entire playoffs. Sergei Bobrovsky may not repeat as the Vezina Trophy winner, but the 25-year old star is entering his prime and he has some postseason experience (seven games worth) from his time in Philadelphia. It takes more than just focus to limit Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but Bobrovsky is roughly the same age as Jonathan Quick and Jean Sebastien-Giguere were when they propelled otherwise limited teams to the Cup final (both were 26). Add in budding offensive star Ryan Johansen (33 goals this season) and impressive offensive balance, and the Jackets will stretch the Penguins, even if Pittsburgh beat them all five times during the course of this season.

 
Win Or Else
 
Dan Bylsma :: Gene Puskar/AP

Muir
Penguins: Sidney Crosby will be 27 this August and he has nine NHL seasons under his belt. Nine seasons, but only one Stanley Cup. Crosby is a generational talent, a player who probably should have a ring for every finger on one hand by this point in his career, especially given the efforts of GM Ray Shero to surround him with world-class talent. But the Pens consistently fall short of expectations, and if it happens again, there could be significant changes coming. GM Ray Shero's safe, but you have to think that coach Dan Bylsma's job would come up for review (especially in the wake of that debacle with Team USA in Sochi). Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has melted down during each of the past two springs. Another would probably seal the opinion that he's not part of the solution. And what about Gino Malkin? A player who always seems to perform his best when out from under Crosby's shadow, he might be made available in the event of an early exit...and given the talent on this team, an ouster prior to the conference championship would be considered early.

Cazeneuve
Dan Bylsma, Penguins: The Penguins' head coach survived the chopping block last spring after he and his minions had no answer for Boston's smothering act. Should Pittsburgh go quietly again this spring --- and anything short of a finals appearance with a team that has this much talent might be considered a disappointment --- that may well lead to Bylsma's ouster.

Kwak
Dan Bylsma, Penguins: He led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in his first year, but Pittsburgh hasn't been back since. The Pens have had more first-round exits than conference final visits since 2010, which should be surprising given the immense talent that's on their roster. This year, Bylsma is under big pressure to deliver more. He's a great motivator in the room, but tactically not the strongest bench boss in the league. And rumblings out of Sochi, where Bylsma led Team USA to an underwhelming fourth place finish (when they looked like favorites going into the medal round), suggested that faith in the fifth-year coach may be fading. If Pittsburgh gets knocked out in the first two rounds, Bylsma may be calling in a moving van.

Blinn
Steve Mason, Flyers: This goalie has had a well-documented rise and fall since he entered the league six seasons ago, but he's found his own personal renaissance in Philly. In matching his career high in wins (33), Mason was a major part of the Flyers' late run up the standings, and while an upper-body injury right before the end of the season could threaten his postseason status, a strong showing in the playoffs would go a long way in cementing his place among the NHL's most capable goalies. If not, the Flyer's eternal search for a cornerstone 'keeper is likely to continue.

Page
Martin St. Louis, Rangers: After demanding a trade from one Eastern Conference contender to another, the aging St. Louis needs to carry the Rangers offense in these playoffs. If the Lightning end up outlasting New York, the unfavorable (and ridiculous) comparisons to Ryan Callahan will never cease.

Baumgaertner
Ryan Miller, Blues: The defensive-minded Blues got the goaltender they wanted at the trade deadline, but now the team is mired in its worst stretch of the season and many are looking at Miller as the root cause of the problem. It's important to acknowledge the Blues' laundry list of injuries -- Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo have all been coping with various ailments -- but Miller was supposed to bolster a team that lacks substantial firepower. Instead, he's been woeful. He hasn't won since April 1 and is 0-5 with a 3.82 goals-against average and an .856 save percentage in his last five starts. The fans have even started to boo. With the defending champion Blackhawks arriving, Miller will have his tallest task since he's been in St. Louis. Even if Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews aren't 100 percent, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa can pick up any slack. Whatever Miller needs to find to return to form, he'd better hurry if the Blues plan on winning a playoff game.

 
Conn Smythe Winner
 
Tuukka Rask :: Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI

Muir
Anze Kopitar, Kings: Just feels like his year, doesn't it? First, the unexpected and thoroughly delightful success of Slovenia in Sochi, then some national recognition of his two-way game with serious Selke Trophy consideration. So why not this piece of hardware? If the Kings are going to go as far as I think they can, they'll need their captain to set the tone. He was a point-per-game player for the champs in 2012. He can be that again, and then some, with Marian Gaborik riding shotgun on a line that's more dangerous than anything the Kings iced when they won the Cup.

Cazeneuve
Tuukka Rask, Bruins: The Bruins keeper has been one of the top goalies in the league for a few years now. He was lights out against Pittsburgh in last spring's Eastern finals, holding both Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin off the score sheet for four games. Boston's defensively responsible style should help Rask keep those numbers down, but he has already shown that he is good enough to steal a series on his own if he must.

Kwak
Tuukka Rask, Bruins: Had things gone the other way for Boston last June, Rask could have made a case for this award with his 1.88 GAA and .940 save percentage during the 2013 postseason. The 27-year-old netminder can consistently steal games, though this season he hasn't had to, thanks to the Bruins' improved offense (their 3.15 goals per game average is .5 better than last season). But goals are harder to come by in the postseason, and Rask's consistency will prove invaluable to the Bruins as they complete their quest to lift the Cup.

Blinn
Patrice Bergeron, Bruins: Where does one start with Bergeron? The center is the Bruins' everything man: he shoots, scores, check, wins face-offs, and shuts down opposing players. As a yearly Selke candidate, he contributes on every last inch of the ice surface and he stepped his game up even more this season by notching his first-ever 30-goal campaign that included an eight-game scoring streak in the home stretch. The Bruins will go as far as Bergeron will carry them, and with an enhanced goal-scoring prowess in his bag of tricks, they're poised to go all the way

Page
Brent Burns, Sharks: Since he moved back to forward, his game has been pure playoff hockey: speed, big hits, big goals, big beard. The Sharks have plenty of talent up front, but when the play gets tight, it might take a man who looks like a homeless NFL-sized linebacker to make space.

Baumgaertner
Tuukka Rask, Bruins:It's a dangerous pick given his mercurial attitude, but his splendid regular season coupled with the Bruins' defensive dominance could propel the crazy Finn to his best postseason yet. He narrowly missed out on the Jennings Award (it went to Jonathan Quick instead), but Rask is a Vezina favorite who allowed more than three goals in just eight of his 47 starts. He's been stellar since March 1, allowing only 1.86 goals per game. The Bruins' defense is established and should minimize any pressure on Rask to stand on his head. And after the nightmare final minutes of last year's Stanley Cup Final, he is determined to snatch what was almost his to hold.

 

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