Well, folks, here we are. After a crazy off-season that saw a pair of $100+ million contracts given out to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter (along with a similar offer sheet between the Philadelphia Flyers and Shea Weber, which was ultimately matched by the Nashville Predators), an epic owners-versus-players battle during the NHL lockout, a shortened season that almost wasn’t, and the longest point-streak in NHL history, we’ve finally reached the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The set-up isn’t necessary, so I’ll just get right to the meat and potatoes: here are my picks for the first round in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. And not a moment too soon, as we’re only a few hours til puck drop. Leave your comments below!
#1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #8 Minnesota Wild
I just mentioned the Minnesota Wild and their two big signings in the off-season, and Zach Parise’s presence in Minnesota makes me really want to pick the Wild in the upset. Former New Jersey Devils’ captain Zach Parise joined the Wild in order to play hockey closer to home (the money helped, too), and he’s bringing plenty of experience with him. Last year in particular, the Devils grabbed the 6th seed in Parise’s first and only year as captain in New Jersey, and stormed through the playoffs past Florida, Philadelphia, and the New York Rangers before falling in the Finals to Los Angeles. Can Parise bring some magic to Minnesota as well and become the new Minnesota Miracle Man?
My brain says no. Chicago is too talented, too deep, and too hot to lose now, and they’ve got extraordinary talent. The goalie tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery is a force to be reckoned with, and the Hawks are just lethal in the offensive zone with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and youngster Brandon Saad. I like the Wild as a young team. With some time to develop, the Wild can be contenders for many years to come. But this year is not that year.
My pick: Chicago in 6. Minnesota has talent, but needs another year or two to build chemistry.
#2 Anaheim Ducks vs. #7 Detroit Red Wings
This is one of the more interesting series of the playoffs, and it could honestly go either way. Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth have proved to be one of the surprising goalie duos of the regular season, and they’ll be huge factors in the Ducks’ success. The scoring will come, as Anaheim is loaded with playmakers like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, and Teemu Selanne, but the goaltending will be key.
For Detroit, the Wings just have to band together and continue the run that got them into the postseason. Winners of four-straight, the Red Wings were teetering on possible elimination from postseason contention, but managed to sneak past both Columbus and Minnesota to snag the 7th-seed. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will be important pieces to the puzzle, but the Wings will need loads of secondary scoring to advance into the conference semifinals.
My pick: Detroit in 7. This will be a terrific series, and I think the Original Six Red Wings sneak by with the series victory. Datsyuk will be your hero, Detroit fans.
#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 San Jose Sharks
This series could very well be a toss-up. Patrick Marleau had one of the most memorable starts to an NHL season, but saw his San Jose club fizzle out to mediocrity over the back-end of the season, ending 5-5 in the final ten-game stretch of the season. If the Sharks want to win this series, it’s going to come down to playing on the road and goalie Antti Niemi. The Sharks had one of the best home records in the NHL, going 17-2-5 when playing in San Jose; but on the road, the Sharks were a sub-par 8-14-2. They’re going to have to win at least one game on the road if they want to win this series, and that will be a major key. The other x-factor for the Sharks is Antti Niemi, who is no stranger to Cup runs, leading the Chicago Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship in 2010. His 24 wins were tops in the League, tied with the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom. If Niemi plays well, the Sharks can steal this series.
As for the Canucks, it really comes down to just playing their style of hockey. They’re loading with talent, and the Sedin Bros. will perform well as always. Corey Schneider had a solid regular season, finishing in the top-10 in both save percentage (4th) and goals against average (8th) – if he can find ways to keep the Sharks in check, the Canucks will cruise to a first-round victory.
My pick: Sharks in 6. San Jose will go 3-0 at home, ending the series in Game 6 at the Shark Tank. Canucks will falter in the playoffs as usual.
#4 St. Louis Blues vs. #5 Los Angeles Kings
The defending Cup champs against one of the great young teams in the NHL, this series has all the makings of a physical, beat-you-down style of hockey. The Blues have all the young talent, and they gave up the least amount of goals in the West behind Brian Elliott, Jaroslav Halak, and Jake Allen. They’ve been pretty consistent throughout the season, winning seven of their last ten and three-in-a-row to end the regular season campaign. Hanging on to that momentum is crucial for the Blues.
Over in sunny California, the Kings know they won’t be able to slide under the radar like they did last year. Teams are gunning to knock off the defending champs, and you can bet the Blues want to be that team. Jonathan Quick appeared to come down to Earth during the regular season, posting awful numbers in comparison to his terrific postseason last year. If Quick can find that zone again, the Kings can take the series with ease. The Kings were led by their big names, and the likes of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Justin Williams will need to find the back of the net early and often.
My pick: Blues in 6. St. Louis will know what to expect against the Kings this year, and they have the physical presence to match-up with LA’s checking. It will be physical, but the Blues will walk out winners.
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #8 New York Islanders
I’ve been hearing some talks that fans shouldn’t be too surprised to see an upset here, looking back at what Los Angeles did last year. Unfortunately, I just don’t see it happening. The Islanders are one of the promising young teams, and everyone in the Atlantic division knew this time would come sooner or later. Evgeni Nabakov has provided the Isles with a proven, solid goaltender between the pipes for the first time in years, and the young squad of Matt Moulson, John Tavares, and Brad Boyes need to play terrific hockey to upset the Islanders.
The Penguins came into the year with high hopes, and they only got better throughout the season. Pittsburgh acquired defenseman Douglas Murray to join a weak blue-line (arguably the only weak spot in the Penguins lineup), and they followed that up with trade deadline acquisitions of Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla. Combined with James Neal, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin, and the Penguins are undoubtedly the most dangerous team on paper in the East. Crosby has missed time with an injury, too, and his return during the series will probably help this series end quickly.
My pick: Penguins in 5. I’ll give the Islanders one win and I’ll say that the games will be close. I just think the Penguins are too good to lose to a team that’s still building up its talent. Maybe next year, Long Island.
#2 Montreal Canadiens vs. #7 Ottawa Senators
Last year, the Montreal Canadiens finished last in the East, winning just 31 of 82 games and a finish in the cellar. After a 48-game season this year, the Habs earned 29 wins and their first Northeast Division title since 2007-08. They’ve struggled as of late, but Montreal is not a team to be fooled around with, as they have both the offense and the defense to shut you down.
Ottawa just kept finding ways to win, despite a crushing injury to Erik Karlsson and others, and their resilience this season must be admired. They acquired Cory Conacher at the deadline for Ben Bishop to get the Sens to sneak into the playoffs, but they face a tough test in Montreal. The Sens are not prolific scorers, but they are a team filled with tough, rugged guys. If they want to win, they’re going to need to play tight defense and get the ugly goals.
My pick: Senators in 7. Call me crazy, I think I might be. But the Senators will beat the Canadiens physically and the return of Karlsson has sparked new life in Ottawa. It won’t be pretty, but it will be a win.
#3 Washington Capitals vs. #6 New York Rangers
Alex Ovechkin hasn’t played hockey this well in at least three years, and his 32 goals in 48 games were almost more than what he put up in the last two seasons (32 and 38), both of which were full a full 82-games. In his final 23 games of the regular season, he’s scored 23 goals and posted multiple points in 13 of those games. Simply put, if the Caps are to win, they will have to ride Ovechkin’s shoulders throughout the series and beyond.
After the acquisition of Rick Nash this off-season, many touted the New York Rangers as the cream of the crop in the East. Nash was stuck on a dead-end Columbus team, and his journey to the Big Apple has sparked a new-found intensity in his game. Even with one of the best in the game in Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, the Rangers are a team that has simply under-performed this season and could be considered lucky to even be in the playoffs. Yet, here they are with a real chance to win; and if winning is something they plan on doing, the goal-scoring must come from everywhere on the ice and the defense must find a way to slow Ovechkin down.
My pick: Rangers in 7. It will be a great series, ultimately a battle between Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist. In the end, though, Madison Square Garden will be rocking into the second round.
#4 Boston Bruins vs. #5 Toronto Maple Leafs
For several years now, the Bruins have reached the postseason poised as true candidates for the Stanley Cup. This year is no different. With the addition of Jaromir Jagr, the Bruins are even more deadly with a mix of veterans, like Jagr and Zdeno Chara, as well as young stars, such as Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. In net, Tuukka Rask has developed into a quality netminder to fill the void left by Tim Thomas, and the Bruins will be a tough out for any team.
2004. That’s the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs reached the playoffs, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round that year. It’s been almost ten years since that trip, and you can bet that both the players and the fans are ready for the excitement it will bring. The question is whether Toronto will be too excited to even function, or if the team will rally around the energy from the crowd and pull off the upset. James Reimer has a chip on his shoulder and every player has something to prove. This series will provide one of the most interesting storylines of the first round.
My pick: Maple Leafs in 6. The Bruins are packed with talent, but the Leafs (and their fans) have waited nine years for this. They won’t let this opportunity slip away. Phil Kessel has the chance to get back at his former team where it hurts most, too.