[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he time has finally come. The National Hockey League is set to start the 2013 NHL Playoffs after a shortened season that consisted of 48 games for each team.
The one twist coming out of the lockout aside from the bunched-up schedule will play a huge roll down the stretch. None of the 30 teams played a single non-conference game in 2013 which could make for an interesting Stanley Cup Final.
Many teams made a push late in the season. The Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets went down to the final wire in the West to determine who was in and who was out. And in the East, it was a matter of seeding for the Ottawa Senators and the Boston Bruins in their final makeup game on Sunday.
After all of the nail-biting drama, the seedings are set and all the fans will be in for a treat as we analyze the first-round matchups that await.
No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5, 1st in Central) VS No. 8 Minnesota Wild (26-19-3, 2nd in Northwest)
There have been many surprises this year in the NHL and one of those was the Blackhawks and their amazing 24-game point streak. That streak that started the season put them in a commanding lead in the Western Conference and they never looked back.
Many questioned the Hawks’ goaltending this season and if Corey Crawford could be a legit starter in the league. Bottom line is this- with a handful of teams going with a 2-goalie system, Crawford is backed by a very solid Ray Emery. Both netminders tied for 2nd in the NHL with a 1.94 GAA.
Going against a stacked offense that ranked 2nd in the league in goals scored, the Wild have their work cut out for them. Niklas Backstrom has been solid as well this season posting a 24-14-3 record with a .909 save percentage.
Despite the Wild adding the two of the most treasured free agents going into this season in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, there is just too much depth in the Hawks’ lineup for this to be a close series with multiple overtimes.
Ekiert’s Prediction: Hawks in 5
No. 2 Anaheim Ducks (30-12-6, 1st in Pacific) VS No. 7 Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8, 3rd in Central)
One of the biggest surprises by far this season was the strong turnaround for the Ducks. After last season’s disappointing 34-36-12 finish, Anaheim has been one of the most consistent teams in the league. It is kind of hard to call this a stellar season for Bruce Boudreau’s team riding in the shadow of what Chicago has done, but it may allow them to knock out teams in a quiet fashion all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Behind MVP candidate Ryan Getzlaf, the ageless wonder Teemu Selane and another two-headed monster in goal- Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth, the Ducks face a tough task in the Red Wings who squeezed their way into a playoff spot. One thing is for certain after witnessing a number of Cinderella teams in the past- it doesn’t matter how you get into the playoffs, even if it is a low seed (Cough cough… Kings… cough… Oilers).
As much one would think this would be a no-brainer, be advised that the Wings know how to win in the playoffs. However, will it be something they can pull off without the services of former long-time captain Nicklas Lidstrom?
Sure, Detroit took the season series 2-1 but without sounding too contradicting, this playoff series could go either way. It could come down to the simple pleasures of home-ice advantage.
Ekiert’s Prediction: Ducks in 7
No. 3 Vancouver Canucks (26-15-7, 1st in Northwest) VS No. 6 San Jose Sharks (25-16-7, 3rd in Pacific)
Here is a series with pressure riding on the shoulders of many.
The Sharks have developed some history of underachieving in the postseason. It is not due to a lack of goaltending or a lack of scoring, or special teams for that matter. It’s all mental.
This is only the second time in the last six years the Sharks did not win the division. Last year, they were knocked out in the first round by the St. Louis Blues, 4-1.
They say defense wins championships. San Jose has just that this year behind goaltender Antti Niemi who tied for most wins this season and sported a nifty 2.16 GAA and an impressive .928 save percentage. Logan Couture has been a surprise this season ranking tenth in the league with 21 goals.
The Canucks have had too much distraction this season with the “Roberto Luongo soap opera.” Too much that it may cost them a first round exit.
Both teams are backing into the playoffs losing 2 straight. This could have the potential to be a sloppy series at best. But given San Jose’s tremendous record at home (17-2-5), all they really have to do is find a way to steal a win on the road. And they have just the right guy in Niemi to do it and make this a first round upset.
Ekiert’s prediction: Sharks in 7
No. 4 St. Louis Blues (29-17-2, 2nd in Central) VS No. 5 Los Angeles Kings (27-16-5, 2nd in Pacific)
It was not long ago when the Kings opened the shortened season after the lockout and passed the Cup around on their home ice. Though they lost that season opener to Chicago and suffered a sluggish start to where they did not break .500 until February 20th, the defending champs are ready to play.
The Kings swept the Blues this season, 3-0 and outscored them 14-7. With Jeff Carter looking like he did a few seasons ago, and the Blues coming in riding a three game winning streak, this could be a very entertaining series.
After a horrific start to the season, Blues goaltender Brian Elliot has posted an 11-2 record in April with a dazzling 1.28 GAA and a .948 save percentage including three shutouts. This was good for the Blues after losing Jaroslav Halak due to injury earlier this year. Elliot stepped to the plate and will have to continue his fine play against a Los Angeles team with a lot of offense.
Carter has scored 26 goals this season (4th in NHL) with eight game-winners. Dustin Brown has been solid this year and Anze Kopitar is still one of the league’s most consistent forwards.
This is a series that could go back and forth early on, but the Kings will prove they are the hungrier team.
Ekiert’s prediction: Kings in 6
No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0, 1st in Atlantic) VS No. 8 New York Islanders (24-17-7, 3rd in Atlantic)
For the first time since 2006-07, the Islanders will make a playoff appearance and will face divisional foe, the Penguins. This is a team that has owned the Islanders over the last decade.
John Taveres has led his team throughout the season and will get his first taste of playoff hockey. This season, Taveres posted 47 points (28 G, 19 A) with five game-winners. This is a very scary team to play even as an eighth seed.
However, the long list of stars from Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla to Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang, the Islanders will have no chance in taking this series although they may have enough speed and goaltending to steal a game or two.
The only problem the Penguins have going into the playoffs is figuring out which players will get a spot in the lineup due to their tremendous depth, and that is a good problem to have.
Pittsburgh outscored New York 17-9 during the season series and took the edge four games to one. It’s funny because the season series is exactly how the post-season series will end.
Ekiert’s prediction: Penguins in 5
No. 2 Montreal Canadiens (29-14-5, 1st in Northeast) VS No. 7 Ottawa Senators (25-17-6, 4th in Northeast)
Another divisional series in the East. Halfway through the season, many people thought the Canadiens were the team to beat when they were sitting pretty in the top spot in the conference. Since then, Montreal has allowed Pittsburgh to sneak in and take the No. 1 seed and the Habs have posted a mediocre 7-7 record in April.
Yes, the Canadiens have a Norris Candidate in PK Subban on the blueline and solid goaltending in Carey Price (when he shows up). On the other side of this, the Senators have played a majority of their season without Erik Karlson and not to mention losing Craig Anderson for a period of time. Anderson led the league this season with a 1.69 GAA and also led with a ridiculous .941 save percentage.
With this matchup, there will be plenty of good goaltending and a lot of low-scoring games. When looking at a match like this, it is a matter of who has the better goaltender. Numbers do not lie.
Ekiert’s pick: Senators in 7
No. 3 Washington Capitals (27-18-3, 1st in Southeast) VS No. 6 New York Rangers (26-18-4, 2nd in Atlantic)
Alex Ovechkin has been the talk of the town during the entire season. During the first half, he was receiving boo’s and criticism. And the second half, he was the buzz around MVP talks. Same scenario for first year coach, Adam Oates.
The Caps have been extraordinary over the last month and a half. They went 11-1-1 in April and did it by scoring on the powerplay and at even strength. We talked about how defense wins championships too right? Well just like Ovechkin, Braden Holtby had a similar season as these two played Jekyll and Hyde in 2013. But it is indeed about “what have you done for me lately?” Right?
Not so fast. The Rangers are not ready to roll over and play dead. They lost superstar Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline in a shocking deal that sent him to Columbus. People wrote this team off the minute they made that move. However, in exchange of that deal the Rangers got Derick Brassard who has scored five goals and 11 points in 13 games.
Behind one of the best goaltenders in the game (Henrik Lundqvist), the Blue Shirts have enough offense in Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan and Brad Richards to keep up with the top guns of the Capitals.
One would believe this should be an easy sweep for the Capitals who are firing on all cylinders, but it may be harder than they expected come Game 1.
Ekiert’s prediction: Capitals in 6
No. 4 Boston Bruins (28-14-6, 2nd in Northeast) VS No. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs (26-17-5, 3rd in Northeast)
As of late, the Bruins have not been playing to their potential. Ever since the Penguins stole Jarome Iginla at the deadline, the B’s have had their fair share of question marks. Enough speculation has molded this once sexy pick to win the Cup into a sub-par team backing into the playoffs. Not only did they lose their season finale against the Senators, but they missed out on winning the division and securing the No. 2 seed.
Relax, Boston fans. Be thankful this happened because of the fact the Islanders are a better team than the Leafs (despite their tough draw facing the best team in the East).
You may have dodged a bullet here facing a Toronto team that shares the same level of “average.” Instead of facing the Islanders who could have upset the Bruins in the first round, Zdeno Chara and company will win this “Original Six” series but will go no farther than the first round. Write that down.
Ekiert’s pick: Bruins in 6