As per our annual custom, SI.com’s parcel of puckheads pull out the crystal ball and attempt to forecast all four rounds of the playoffs. We also give you their picks for dark horse team to watch, heavyweight that is most vulnerable to an upset, the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy, and a prognostication that is sure to raise eyebrows if not hackles. On that note, off we go.
Why the Blackhawks? I can come up with a dozen reasons to support the notion of the Hawks being knocked off in the first round, no problem. So why pick them to skate the Cup? In a field that’s as wide open as ever, there’s comfort in the familiar. We’ve all seen what Jonathan Toews can do in this situation. Same with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa. This is a veteran squad that’s been through these wars before. It knows how to finish the job. Obviously the return of Patrick Kane, even at something less than 100%, provides a moral and practical boost. And then there’s the looming bloodshed. Salary cap issues will force another 2010-style sell-off when this season's over. Maybe there's a little extra motivation knowing that this will be the last hurrah for this group.
Why the Rangers? New York overachieved a bit last spring when they made it to the Cup finals, but this year’s team looks built for ultimate playoff success. Unless sniper Rick Nash experiences another postseason drought, expect New York to soar through the East. Tampa Bay, another speedy team with a dynamic transition game, will be the biggest roadblock in their way, but the Rangers’ superior goaltending in Henrik Lundqvist will win out in the end. Their defense corps is one of the best in the league, and even against a tough and physical team like the Ducks, the Rangers have enough experience now to handle any big bodies that are thrown at them.
Why the Lightning? As save percentages continue to climb and the playoffs seem to become more physical with tighter checking every year, the Kings provided a template for winning with their game-breaking offense. Justin Williams and Marian Gaborik were able to turn seemingly innocuous plays into spectacular snipes. In front of a solid blueline and goalie, Tampa Bay has a stable of forwards with this same talent for instant scoring—including but not limited to—Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Kucherov. I also picked them before the season in our original prediction post and love doubling-down on my own potential rightness.
Why the Rangers? Every team in the field has a question mark somewhere on its roster. Between shaky goaltending, offensive inefficiencies, lack of depth or injuries, there’s really no "sure thing." While that’s going to make for some exciting playoff hockey, it sure makes picking a winner difficult. The Rangers are the closest to a complete squad, especially if defenseman Kevin Klein (broken arm) gets back into the lineup. Offensively, New York can match up with the Blackhawks, and perhaps the biggest factor is Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who is well-rested and has a chip on his shoulder after coming up just short of the Cup last season.
Conn Smythe MVP
MUIR: Though I picked Chicago to win the Cup, I honestly have no idea who is coming out of the West. I could come up with five good reasons to support five of those eight teams and then tie myself into knots trying to rationalize one over the others. So I’m going to go with the team that has the experience, the depth, the defense (well, a great top-four, anyway) and the game-breaker (Patrick Kane, even if he’s rusty and less than 100%.) But most important, Chicago has the goaltending. For all the grief he takes, Corey Crawford’s been excellent this year. He won the Jennings, finished third in quality starts and fifth in adjusted save percentage. And throughout this up-and-down season, he’s been the most consistent Blackhawk. Give me Crawford.
KWAK: Rick Nash scored only three goals in 25 postseason games last spring, but don’t expect a repeat of that paltry output. Nash potted a career-high 42 this season, showing a dogged determination to get to the net. With his size and all the speed that surrounds him, I won’t be surprised if the Rangers winger is able to net 15 this spring.
PAGE: Since I’m picking the Lightning to win the whole thing and they’ll need their goalies to be strong for them to do it, I’ll say Ben Bishop. I think he’s far from the best starting goaltender in the tournament (he’s arguably the worst), but there could easily be a situation in which the Bolts are the best team and their scoring happens by committee, making him the standout.
BLINN: A broken leg derailed Derek Stepan’s start to the season and kept him from establishing career-high offensive numbers. While it’s hard to say if those first 12 games would have mattered much in the big picture, what does matter is his last 12, in which he racked up five goals and seven assists. Stepan lifted his game during last season’s Cup finals run by the Rangers, and he’s in position to do it again on a loaded roster where he’ll get every chance to be an offensive focal point.
Dark horse team
MUIR: Sorry to deliver the kiss of death Capitals fans, but I’m going with Washington here. And honestly, I almost talked myself into picking the Caps to win the Cup. Not that I think they’re the best team, but they have so many pieces that are functioning so well right now that all they need is a couple of bounces to do some damage this spring. Braden Holtby’s been incredible (seriously, goalie coach Mitch Korn deserves some kind of award—can we get him one?), the defense stacks up well against the other Eastern contenders and there’s better scoring depth than they’ve had in years. And with Alex Ovechkin playing a team game like he has this season, well, anything seems possible. If they can survive the second round, look out.
KWAK: Perhaps the hottest team in the Western Conference after the All-Star break shouldn’t really be considered a dark horse, but as a wild card team the Wild could make some waves in the tightly contested Central Division bracket. Of course, netminder Devan Dubnyk is the story, but don’t forget this team also has winger Zach Parise, center Mikko Koivu and defenseman Ryan Suter, all playing some of the best hockey they’ve ever played.
PAGE: Of the wild card teams, the Jets boast the best path to the Stanley Cup finals. The Ducks still have many of the problems that plagued them when the Stars made them look vulnerable in the first round of last year’s playoffs, including an uncertain goaltending situation and underwhelming possession stats. If the Jets can slip by the Ducks, they could rout either of their suspect Canadian neighbors in the second round. The third round would be tough against one of their Central Division betters. But there’s a chance that whichever team emerges from the Blues-Wild-Predators-Blackhawks wars will be tired by then.
BLINN: It’s really hard to deny what Dubnyk has done for the Wild since coming to them from Arizona 39 games ago. He’s become the anchor behind an underrated defense led by Ryan Suter and the emergent Jonas Brodin. Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek lead a deceptively deep offense that includes a breakout scoring threat in Nino Neiderreiter. All of the ingredients are there for a first-round upset against a Blues team that’s seen its fair share of struggles, especially in net, down the stretch.
Biggest upset fodder
MUIR: I love these Blues. Five minutes ago, I was picturing the Stanley Cup parade kicking off at Union Station with the old mug being pulled down Market Street by a team of Budweiser Clydesdales. But now that I’m on the spot, I have to admit they got a lousy first-round draw in Minnesota. Given the way Devan Dubnyk is playing—and the uncertainty surrounding the tandem of Jake Allen and Brian Elliott—I think St. Louis is vulnerable to an early upset.
KWAK: Montreal has largely been carried by goalie Carey Price this season, and if winger Max Pacioretty is not available, that only adds to Price’s workload. In the first round, the Habs will be facing a Senators team that’s played desperate playoff-type hockey for the last month, and largely succeeded.
PAGE: There’s a certain question-begging that’s tough to wrestle with here: If I think they’re liable to lose in the first round, do I really think they’re one of the best? Still, the Canadiens, of the high seeds, could easily lose to any single Eastern Conference playoff team, including the Senators. Ottawa beat them pretty resoundingly in their last three match-ups. If Carey Price is anything less than God’s gift to goaltending, the Habs are toast.
BLINN: Playoff experience does not always matter, which is good news for the Ducks’ goaltending duo of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson. Perhaps a bit more unsettling is the duo’s recent history: Since March 1, they’ve combined to go 12-7 with a 2.70 goals-against average and .910 save percentage–well off the league averages of 2.52 and .915. In those seven losses, they’ve given up an average of 4.71 goals per game. That kind of inconsistency can sink a team in the playoffs, and Anaheim’s offense, while deep, could have some trouble making up for a cold streak in the crease.
I may be crazy but ...
MUIR: The NHL’s playoff scoring champion will be ... Ondrej Palat of the Lightning.
KWAK: Devan Dubnyk will not be the Wild’s goalie for their final game of the season.
PAGE: The Predators and Wild meet in the second round and Shea Weber and Ryan Suter fight at center ice in Game One at the Bridgestone Arena.
BLINN: With a high degree of parity and few distinct front-runners, the recent trend of playoff overtimes will continue. Not only will we get more than our fair share of “free hockey,” you can expect to see the longest game since 2008’s Western Conference Semifinals Game 6 in which the Sharks and Stars went at it for 129:03. While the all-time record of 176:30, set in 1936 by Detroit and Montreal won’t be broken, the Penguins-Flyers’ modern-era mark of 152:01 in 2000 will face some stiff competition.