It’s the best time of year for the coolest game on Earth. The NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs begin Wednesday night. I’m not sure there are any clear-cut favorites in either conference. That could make this year’s playoffs one of the best in a really long time. Vancouver led the league with 111 points, and St. Louis and New York Rangers tied at 109. I’m not sure any of those three teams are the favorites in their conferences.
Regular season doesn’t matter. Home ice doesn’t matter. The team with the hottest goalie and the team that takes advantage by scoring on their power play will advance the furthest to hopefully lift Lord Stanley’s Cup in June.
Let’s get to my predictions.
1. New York Rangers over 8. Ottawa Senators in 5
The Rangers have the huge edge in goaltending, which is why they’ll advance. Henrik Lundqvist is the favorite for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie. I can’t see this getting past Game 5.
2. Boston Bruins over 7. Washington Capitals in 6
Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals rallied late in the year to make the postseason. This is another goaltending mismatch. The Bruins led the league in goal differential at +67. Still no Cup for Ovie.
6. New Jersey Devils over 3. Florida Panthers in 6
The Devils have arguably the greatest goalie of all-time. But Martin Brodeur is 39 and on the last legs of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career. Ilya Kovalchuk will step up and score for the Devils. He’s the best player in the series.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins over 5. Philadelphia Flyers in 7
This is going to be the best first-round series. There are so many factors in the outcome. The rivalry is already undeniable. Philadelphia took 4 out of 6 from Pittsburgh during the regular season, but like I just stated, the regular season means nothing at this point. Sidney Crosby is back, for now, and Evgeni Malkin is probably going to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. I’m going to be rooting hard for Jaromir Jagr and the Flyers, and it really pains to do it, but I have to go with the Penguins. With a healthy Crosby, they can win it all.
1. Vancouver Canucks over 8. Los Angeles Kings in 7
The Canucks won the Presidents Trophy for having the best regular-season record, but I think this series is going to be a lot closer than a 1 vs. 8 matchup should be. Roberto Luongo can be a brick wall, or he can be swiss cheese. The Kings have trouble scoring, but Luongo has been known to give up some softies. L.A.’s fantastic penalty kill, led by goalie Jonathan Quick needs to slow down the great power play of Vancouver. I can’t pick against the defending conference champs in the first round.
2. St. Louis Blues over 7. San Jose Sharks in 7
I’ve written enough about the Blues and Coach Ken Hitchcock this year. I’m rooting for them. But the Sharks are a veteran bunch with plenty of playoff experience. Whoever starts in net for St. Louis (Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott) needs to slow down San Jose’s potent power play. I’m throwing my eggs in the Blues’ basket. At least in this round.
6. Chicago Blackhawks over 3. Phoenix Coyotes in 7
The health of Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is a huge question mark. He’s a game-time decision for Game 1. Coyotes goalie Mike Smith is absolutely on fire right now, stopping 190 of his last 192 shots. I think the Blackhawks are just too deep and talented to not advance.
4. Nashville Predators over 5. Detroit Red Wings in 7
Really difficult to pick the Wings to lose, but the Predators are really good. They’re built for the playoffs. If Pekka Rinne plays strong in net for Nashville, it could make it to the finals. If the Wings were the 4 seed and the Preds were 5, I would change this pick. Home-ice isn’t anywhere near what home-court is in the NBA, but the Wings had that ridiculous home winning streak. They struggled on the road, so give me the Predators in Game 7 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
The NHL, like the NFL, reseeds after each round, so you can’t really make predictions more than one round at a time. I’ll preview each round before it happens. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make a prediction for the finals. I thought about this a ton, and I can see 7 of these 16 teams hoisting the Cup.
That being said, I’m not going safe. I’m taking Nashville, which could easily lose to Detroit in the first round, to come out of the West. And I have Pittsburgh representing the East. I hate the Penguins like Browns fans hate the Steelers, which is why it’s so painful to pick. Because of that hate, I’m taking the Predators to win the Stanley Cup. Rinne is one of the best goalies in the league, so I’ll pick him to win the Conn Smythe as MVP of the playoffs.. And the Preds led the league by scoring on 21.7% of power plays, while ranking 10th in penalty kill. They have all the tools to get it done, including pretty awesome jerseys.
On a side note, the NHL Draft Lottery will be held tonight at 8 p.m. The Blue Jackets finished with the fewest points in the league, have the best chance of winning the No. 1 pick. Technically the Jackets have more than the 25 percent the worst team is supposed to have. Lottery rules state no team can move up more than four spots. So only the bottom five teams have a chance to win. If any of the other teams win the lottery, the Blue Jackets get the top pick. If you add the chances of teams 6-14 to the Jackets’ 25 percent, the real odds are 48.2.
The only other teams with a chance to win the lottery are Edmonton (18.8 percent), Montreal (14.2), New York Islanders (10.7) and Toronto (8.1). By the way, it’s not good for hockey that three of the bottom five teams in the league are Canadian teams.
Draft lottery rules also state no team can drop more than one spot, so the Jackets will either select first or second on June 22 in Pittsburgh. We’ll find out tonight.