Never before have I entered the playoffs worried about injuries affecting my picks. Under normal circumstances, choosing the team that will come out of a series victorious was all about picking the team that was going to get contributions from everywhere and not going to falter under pressure. That will not be the case this year.
In the West, a couple of the possible of contenders have injury situations heading into the playoffs. For the Stars, it’s superstar Tyler Seguin who’s status is unknown. For the Blues, their captain David Backes says he’ll be back for the playoffs, but will he be at 100%? 75% even? The Sharks are missing their best defender and possibly the best shutdown defender in all of hockey in Marc Edouard Vlasic. The Wild suddenly have a big injury concern with their best player, Zach Parise. If he’s out, their chances of upsetting the Stars are even smaller.
In the East, it’s a similar story in terms of the number and possible severity of injuries. Tampa Bay was playing great hockey and then in the span of two weeks lost Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos, and are hoping that Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman will be ready for the first round of the playoffs. Pittsburgh has gotten outstanding goaltending from both Fleury and their backup Matt Murray this season, but both of them could be out for the first couple games of the first round with injuries. They also may not have Evgeni Malkin. The Islanders will not have their starting goalie and will be relying on backup Thomas Greiss to provide stable goaltending. The Rangers could be without Ryan McDonagh, who is their captain and best defenseman.
With all those injuries heading into the playoffs, the depth of each of these teams will really be tested on the biggest of stages. But enough about injuries. Here are my picks for the first round.
Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
In theory, this should be by a wide margin the most lopsided first round matchup in the first round of the playoffs. The Washington Capitals have been the best team all year, and are playing a Flyers team that made the playoffs because they got hot and the Bruins choked down the stretch. For Philadelphia to win this series, they will need to make their strengths stronger and their weaknesses strengths. They will need otherworldly goaltending, and timely goals from their superstars Giroux and Voracek. Their most important player this series, however, will be Wayne Simmonds. He is their crunch time goal scorer and if he can get those timely goals, then this series could become interesting. Unfortunately, even if all those things happen, they still probably wouldn’t beat the Caps. Ovi is playing great hockey, Braden Holtby just tied Brodeur’s record for most wins in a season, and their leading scorer isn’t even on their insanely good first line of Ovi, Backstrom, and Oshie. Caps 4, Flyers 1
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers
This is one of those series that could be completely altered by injuries. The Pens may be without their two top goalies and Evgeni Malkin. That hasn’t stopped them from being one of the hottest teams entering the playoffs going 8-1 in their last 9 games. That one game they lost, Crosby didn’t play. A team cannot be any hotter entering the playoffs. The Rangers come into the playoffs stumbling and could very well be without their best player and captain, Ryan McDonagh for at least the first couple games, if not the whole series. As every game counts, this series could be decided by whether or not Fleury and/or McDonagh can play in Games 1 and 2. The Rangers strength is their team defense and timely offense. They will need Eric Staal to play better than he did in the regular season, and they will need Chris Kreider to play at a higher level. Look for Derek Brassard to draw the assignment of Crosby and the winner of that battle could determine the series. The Penguins are one of the best offenses in the NHL so this an intriguing matchup of great offense versus great defense. The Pens are hot and the Rangers will most likely not have McDonagh. Penguins 4, Rangers 3.
Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders
All year people have doubted if the Panthers were for real, and for good reason too. One of their best players is 44 years old, and their goalie is in his upper 30’s. However, they wouldn’t be here without the contributions of their young guys. Aaron Ekblad is only 20 years old and he’s already an all-star and their best defenseman. Alexander Barkov is on his way to being an elite two way forward, and Jonathan Huberdeau has unlimited potential and could be a big time player in these playoffs. The best player in this series when it begins however will be Johnny Tavares of the New York Islanders. He will really need to be special in this series if he wants to lead this team to victory as he will have to put the team on his shoulders and drag them to the finish line. Thomas Greiss is unproven in the playoffs, and I don’t believe the young Panthers will be rattled because of the great veterans they have on their teams. Panthers 4, Islanders 2.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
No team is more ravaged by injury than the Lightning and they aren’t insignificant injuries. Their two best offensive players are very much in doubt for this series in Johnson and Stamkos. Their two best defenseman are both nursing injuries in Stralman and Hedman. In fact, the Lightning were so ravaged by injury that they were forced to call up a player who refused to play for their AHL team when he got sent down and demanded a trade. Maybe even crazier is Jonathan Drouin may be the X-factor for this Lightning team as they will need his offense in this series. Their biggest advantage over the Red Wings is in goal where Ben Bishop is one of those rare goalies that can steal an entire series by himself. The Red Wings are led by savvy veterans like Datsyuk, and youngsters like Dylan Larkin and do have the potential to come out of this series victorious. To win this series, they will need solid goaltending from either Mrazek or Howard, and they will need to contain the Triplet Line of Johnson, Palat, and Kucherov if they are all indeed able to play in this series. Lightning 4, Red Wings 2.
Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild
The Wild have been the team in the last couple seasons to pull off the upset, and this would be no exception. They will need a healthy Zach Parise, which is not looking good, and they need Ryan Suter to play around 30 minutes a night just to hang with the offensively talented Stars. They’ll also need Dubnyk to be special and play like he did during the closing stretch of last year. The Stars are missing one of their two best players in Tyler Seguin, and for a first place team, they have a serious goaltending problem as either goalie could start game 1. This series has upset written all over it, but I’m worried about Parise’s health so that sways me the Stars’ way. Stars 4, Wild 2.
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
This will be one of the two best series in the first round because both of these teams have the talent to win it all. The Blues have dealt with health issues all year long but they have battled through it and been one of the best teams all year long. They are deep from top to bottom, they have a superstar goal scorer, and both their goalies are capable of winning a series. However, they are playing the Blackhawks. The Blackhawks are the team that flips the switch come playoff time, and this year will be no different. The Blackhawks are loaded. They have three elite defensemen, and the best goalie that never gets talked about in Corey Crawford. Oh yea, they also have Patrick Kane and the best two way player in the game in captain Jonathan Toews. Chicago 4, St. Louis 2.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators
This is an interesting series because I don’t believe the talent gap is all that different between these two teams. The forwards favor the Ducks because of their depth with Getzlaf, Perry, and Kesler all on different lines. The defense favors the Preds because they have 2 of the 7 best defensemen in the world that are capable of playing 30 minutes a night. The goalie talent is pretty similar, but Pekka Rinne is far more experienced than Gibson and Andersen and that could make all the difference in the world. Last year I picked Winnipeg to beat the Ducks and they got swept. However, they had the lead in all 4 third periods only to blow the lead each game so that series wasn’t nearly as lopsided as the series score. I hope Nashville doesn’t do the same thing to me again this year. Predators 4, Ducks 3.
Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks
This will be the best first round series because of the pure hatred these teams have for each other. Neither team made the playoffs last year, but 2 years ago the Kings came back from 3-0 down to win the series 4-3. That will only add fuel to the fire and this series will be full of big hits, and tight-checking, low scoring games. If this series was played without goalies, I would feel confident picking the Sharks as they are the better team in terms of forward and defensive depth. They have 6 really good defensemen (with Vlasic), and when they have a lead going into the 3rd period they tend to hold it. Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski will likely see a lot of Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty and that will be an intense battle all series. Those players need to be successful if each of these teams want to advance to the next round. The most important player in this series is Jonathan Quick. He is entirely capable of winning the whole series by himself and if he stands on his head, the Sharks have no chance. The Sharks advantage in this series is that they are the best road team in the NHL and are capable of winning multiple games in hostile Los Angeles. The Sharks need for revenge will push them over the top in the series I am least confident in picking. Sharks 4, Kings 3.
Stanley Cup Winner: The Stanley Cup Winner will be the winner of the Sharks-Kings Series. I have the Sharks winning that series so they are my pick, but should the Kings advance I believe they will win the Cup. Look for Joe Pavelski to have a huge playoffs if the Sharks do indeed advance all the way to the Cup.