It's the second season, gut-check time, when the anticipation hangs thick in the air like Toronto summer smog and playoff beards are mere stubble on the eager faces of sports writers across the land. What? You thought we were talking about the players? What sort of pressure can compare to laying it all on the line and putting your name beside playoff predictions? Exactly.
So here we go. The chase for the Stanley Cup begins Wednesday night, with eight series and the Globe hockey writers, Eric Duhatschek, Sean Gordon, James Mirtle and David Shoalts have them all figured out.
Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild
Matt Duchene’s absence for the start of the series means Colorado has to play without its leading scorer, making the series far closer on paper than it otherwise would be.
The Avalanche had a monumentally impressive turnaround under rookie coach Patrick Roy this season, and had trophy-contending performances from the likes of goaltender Semyon Varlamov, a Vezina candidate, and Nathan MacKinnon, the rookie of the year favourite.
Young captain Gabriel Landeskog blossomed in his third full season and Paul Stastny had a bounce back year as well. The availability of key defencemen Jan Hejda and Tyson Barrie, both of whom had injuries down the stretch, could be pivotal. Hejda is out for the start.
Similarly, if Mikael Granlund is okay to play after recovering from a concussion, then that balances two lines for Minnesota, with Matt Moulson coming over at the deadline and Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu having very good years.
All that money Minnesota invested in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter ultimately paid off with the Wild’s second consecutive trip to the playoffs, but they are basically down to their fourth goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov because of injuries and/or illnesses to Josh Harding, Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper.
Bryzgalov is a lifetime 17-19 in the playoffs. If he can keep up his end of things, after a pretty good finish, then Minnesota has a chance. But the gap between the two Russian goalies is so great right now that Colorado should prevail.
The pick: Avalanche in 5.
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
This should be the most hard-fought series in the first round, one you wish could be saved for later but both teams hit a skid late in the regular season to let Colorado grab the Central Division title.
The division mates have a strong mutual dislike but injuries to both teams took the bite out of them late in the season.
The Blackhawks say Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be ready to play for Game 1 while the Blues expect David Backes and T.J. Oshie, who both play on the top line, to be in the lineup.
However, the Blues will still be missing important support players like Vladimir Tarasenko (hand), Patrick Berglund (shoulder), Brenden Morrow (foot) and Vladimir Sobotka (undisclosed) for at least the first game.
Picking a winner here is a coin-flip, as both teams took turn being the league’s best during the regular season until the injuries hit. However, the Blackhawks are vulnerable on a couple of fronts. They were tied for the highest number of players to play in the Olympics (10), which might wear them down.
The Blues also have the edge in goal with Ryan Miller, who was acquired at the trade deadline as the missing piece of their puzzle. If Miller can hold off Toews, Kane and company and Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock can squeeze a little extra offence out of his supporting players, we like their chances.
The pick: Blues in 7.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
The Stars qualified for the playoffs after a five-year absence, thanks largely to two factors – Kari Lehtonen’s steady work in goal and Tyler Seguin’s emergence as a front-line NHL scoring star.
Seguin finished in the top five of NHL scoring race; he and line-mate Jamie Benn were one of the NHL’s most dynamic duos. Sadly for the Stars, the Ducks may have that best pair in the league in centre Ryan Getzlaf and winger Corey Perry.
Getzlaf is the only other legitimate MVP contender among position players beyond Sidney Crosby, but the primary difference between the teams is that while Dallas’s scoring falls off a cliff after their top two, Anaheim may have the most depth at the forward position in the NHL.
If Seguin/Benn and Getzlaf/Perry ends up as a wash, the Ducks secondary scoring, plus a far deeper one-to-six defence corps, gives them an edge.
The only way the Stars win is if Anaheim’s goaltending falters. The Ducks gave two rookies, Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, playing time down the stretch ahead of nominal No. 1 Jonas Hiller, leaving coach Bruce Boudreau with a tough call to make.
As long as Anaheim’s goaltending doesn’t completely fall apart, they are too deep to lose to the improving Stars.
The pick: Ducks in 6.
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
They carry the exact opposite reputations into the playoffs: the San Jose Sharks, the team that can’t win it all, despite so much regular season success; and then the Los Angeles Kings, a team that elevates its collective game when the postseason arrives.
The Kings have won by far the most playoff games in the NHL over the past two seasons (25) and, if anything, they are better on paper than the 2012 Stanley Cup championship team. Two players who were top six forwards then (Dustin Brown and Mike Richards) played in the bottom six down the stretch after Marian Gaborik was added at the deadline and one of Dwight King or Tyler Toffoli played alongside Jeff Carter.
But the Sharks are deeper as well, with the early-season rookie sensation Tomas Hertl back playing again and underachieving Martin Havlat showing signs of life in the late going.
L.A. has the decided edge in goal, with Jonathan Quick playing much better in the second half than in the first, while the Sharks’ Antti Niemi had an up-and-down season and was getting pushed for playing time by rookie Alex Stalock.
The Kings and Sharks ranked first and third in puck-possession metrics, so whoever wins the battle of the face-off circle is going to gain a slight edge.
Last year, the teams went seven and L.A. prevailed because they had the home-ice advantage. This year, it belongs to San Jose.
The pick: Sharks in 7.
Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings
Some reward for winning the Presidents’ Trophy. In many ways, this edition of the Bruins is an improvement over last year’s group that went all the way to the Cup finals and deserves the title of the class of the East. Even so, they’ll have their hands full with the plucky Wings, who overcame all kinds of injuries and finished the year on a 9-4-2 high.
Detroit coach Mike Babcock has his group of kids and Swedes playing some entertaining and hard-working hockey, the kind that will match-up well against the Bruins as long as they stay out of the penalty box.
How Pavel Datsyuk, one of many Wings coming off injury, fares up against Patrice Bergeron will be one series key, as the Wings could be hard-pressed for goals as one of the lower scoring teams to make the postseason. They’ll also need Gustav Nyquist to continue his emergence as one of the league’s most dangerous trigger men after finishing the year with 23 goals in his last 34 games.
Another wild card is the health status of Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, who is a long shot to return late in the series.
Likewise, Boston will miss injured defenceman Dennis Seidenberg, but the Bruins biggest edge is going to be in goal with Vezina candidate Tuukka Rask. If Jimmy Howard has a strong series and can match him, however, this one could well go the distance.
The pick: Bruins in 7.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
There wasn’t much to separate the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning in the regular season, there’s no reason to think that will change in the playoffs.
But Montreal does enter the series with an edge: Carey Price, playing the best hockey of his career, is far more battle-tested than injured Lightning starter Ben Bishop, who may or may not start the series. It goes without saying Price is a far better option than Tampa’s backups – the great imponderable is top prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose KHL season has ended.
Tampa won three of the four regular-season meetings between the teams – but only one of the encounters, the most recent, was settled in regulation.
The Lightning are a net positive possession team, but aren’t among the league’s elite, while the Habs were draft-lottery bad in advanced statistical terms. Many of the underlying measures indicate Montreal’s game has improved in the last four weeks, it will become clear pretty quickly whether that’s a mirage.
Both teams can boast plenty of forward depth, and while the Habs have no match for Steven Stamkos, the league’s deadliest goal-scorer, they have an arguably more balanced attack that’s been bolstered at five-on-five by the trade deadline addition of Thomas Vanek.
With 39-goal man Max Pacioretty, crafty playmaker David Desharnais and Vanek, the Habs’ top line can get the job done. Montreal also has an elite two-way centre Thomas Plekanec, and a near-elite one in Lars Eller – that should help counter Tampa’s home ice advantage and the ability of coach Jon Cooper (who by rights should be a Jack Adams finalist) to exploit match-ups.
Both teams boast stud defencemen who played in the 2009 World Junior Championship (Victor Hedman and P.K. Subban), but Montreal’s blueline might have a depth advantage given the presence of Andrei Markov.
In terms of special teams, the Lightning surely has the edge in terms of the power play (credit Stamkos), whereas the Habs’ penalty kill is far stronger (fourth best in the NHL in the regular season).
Small things matter in the post-season, the advantage in net should be enough to see the Habs through to the next round.
The pick: Canadiens in 7.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Common sense and the statistics say this should be an easy series for the Penguins.
They still have the same core that went to the Stanley Cup final in 2008, won it in 2009 and stayed near the top of the Eastern Conference ever since.
But there were those playoff meltdowns in recent years by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and that no-show against the Bruins in 2013. Plus their best defenceman, Kris Letang, is coming off a stroke and centre Evgeni Malkin, whose desire is always questionable, is on the limp.
On the Columbus side, no one expects anything from them, which relieves much pressure, and they have a great young goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky. Their most experienced playoff performer, winger Nathan Horton, will miss the series after abdominal surgery.
But the Jackets do have some playoff experience – Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Fedor Tyutin among others. Plus, they have a group of youngsters in Ryan Johansen, Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner who came into their own this season.
First-round upsets are guaranteed in the NHL and this one is just too tempting to pass up.
The pick: Blue Jackets in 7.
New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Both teams started extremely slow, with the Flyers in particular labouring early with just four wins in their first 15 games. These days, neither team looks much like they did in the fall.
Buoyed by new coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers caught fire at about the 35-game mark, as Henrik Lundqvist came around, becoming one of the hottest teams in the league over the second half in posting a 29-13-4 record since mid-December. That should make them the favourites.
New York’s main weakness right now is on offence. Among playoff teams in the East, only Montreal scored fewer goals, and only Derek Stepan has been dangerous since the Olympic break. What they could use is more from newcomer Marty St. Louis, who has only one goal in 19 games as a Ranger and has yet to provide the punch they were hoping for at the deadline.
That said, the Flyers goaltending might be the perfect remedy to that, especially with Steve Mason battling an undisclosed injury and backup Ray Emery and his .903 save percentage in line to get the Game 1 start.
In that sense, this will be a series in contrasts, with the Rangers attempting to win with defence and goaltending and the Flyers just the opposite. The fun will come with Philadelphia’s deep forward group led by Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek – all of whom were nearly a point a game post-Olympics – battling for space against the Rangers top pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi.
If Giroux and Co. can break through those two and Lundqvist in goal, the Flyers have a chance. But they’re the underdogs in this one, with a healthy Mason or not.
The pick: Rangers in 6.