So here we are...Monday April 14th...so far no April showers and May Flowers not in site. However, Spring has sprung its wings and that means it is time for Playoff Hockey. It's hard to believe that the NHL regular season has concluded. It feels like just yesterday when T.J. Oshi scored those four shootout goals against Russia, in the Olympics at SOCHI, that ultimately lead to a Bronze Medal win for the US team. Wow...that was back in February...just about two months ago. Well here we are. The eve of the Greatest Postseason Sporting Tournament is upon us. Although there are still signs of snow (it is actually snowing in Green Bay, Wisconsin), the long cold winter has finally dissipated.
For those hardcore Hockey fans, we can remember last season all to well as it was cut short by the labor strike. I mean, the playoffs were still fun to watch, but last year just didn't have that same feeling going into the Post Season. This season, like many others has had no shortage of excitement, drama, and milestones:
*We saw Martin Brodeur play in his last game as a New Jersey Devil. The Goaltender holds virtually every NHL Goalie Record on paper. After the New Jersey Devils beat the Boston Bruins 3-2, in what was Brodeur's final game with the franchise and perhaps his career, the Jersey fans erupted at the Prudential Center. The fans stood and cheered as all of his teammates raised their sticks. If Brodeur were to retire today, he holds the NHL record for wins (688), Games Played (1,259), and Shutouts (124), all while playing with the same team. What an accomplishment. He finished this season with a record of 688-394-105-49. He also posted a more than respectable 2.24 Career Goals Against Average and a .912 Save Percentage along with the 124 Shutouts. He posted another 205 Wins-113 Losses in the Playoffs, 18 Shutouts, 2.02 GAA and a .919 Save Percentage. Oh and did I fail to say, Brodeur won 3 Stanley Cups and 2 Vezina Trophies. There is no doubt he will be a first ballot hall of famer.
*Jaromir Jagr reached 700 Goals scored in just a bit over 1,400 Games. That averages out to almost a goal every other game. Jagr added 1,050 career Assists for a point total of 1,755. Jagr holds 47 different NHL/KHL records which is an epic accomplishment. Jagr was a member of the back to back Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992. Jagr is currently sixth all-time in Points, and 5th all-time in playoff scoring. He is 7th all-time in goals scored, 8th all-time in assists, 4th all-time in shots on goal and 1st all-time in overtime goals. Let us take a chance to thank Jagr for all of the tremendous memories on and off the ice.
*Ryan Smyth retires in Edmonton.
*Boston wins another Presidents Trophy.
*The first year of realignment has come to an end.
These are just a few of the highlights of 2014. Now comes the real test. The moment that every NHL player and fans envy. This is the time when the beards do not stop growing. This is the time when players grind through painful injuries as they put their bodies on display for a chance at Lord Stanley's Cup. This is the time when heroes are born. This is a time when memories are made. This is the time when star players elevate their games and try to be the best. This is the time when the better teams win. This is the time when the teams that are underdogs sometimes surprise us all. This is NHL PLAYOFF HOCKEY!!! There is nothing like it! So without further a due...here is my preview and picks for the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We will begin in the Eastern Conference. The Eastern Conference is broken down into the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions. The top 3 Teams from each division make the playoffs and there are two wild card teams. Let us take a quick look at each series.
Atlantic Division Wild Card Winner
***Best Record NHL***
Atlantic Division Champions
Detroit comes into the playoffs lead by 42 Year Old Right Winger, Daniel Alfredsson, who also lead the team with 49 Points (18G/31A). Meanwhile, Henrick Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Center Pavel Datsyuk played under 55 games due to injury. Zetterberg finished with 48 Points (16G/32A) in 45 Games. Datsyuk had 37 Points (17G/20A) in 45 Games. Finally, Franzen had 41 Points (16G/25A) in 54 Games. Second Year Winger, Gustav Nyquist lead the Red Wings with 28 Goals. Goalie Jimmy Howard was solid as the team's Number 1 with 21-19-11 record, 2.66GAA, and a .910 Save Percentage. Jonas Gustavson was 16-5-4 with a 2.63 GAA, and a .907 SV%. On Defense, the Red Wings were lead by Niklas Kronwall who tied Alfredsson with 49 Points (8G/41A).
Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins are the Top Seed and finished with the best record in the regular season once again. Center David Krejci was the team leader with 69 Points (19G/50A). Center Pierre Bergeron and Jarome Iginla both scored 30 Goals to lead the way. Three other players scored at least 20 Goals. Of course, on Defense the Bruins are lead by the "BEAST", Zedno Chara who is also flagged by another Defensive stalwart Torey Krug. The Bruins were the most consistent team in Hockey and they fired on all cylinders all season. In Goal, the Bruins are lead by Tukka Rask. Rask posted a 36-15-6 Record w a 2.04 GAA and a .930 SV% to go along with 7 Shutouts.
Matchup: Boston has the league's 8th Best Penalty Kill @ 83.7% compared to Detroit who has the 18th Ranked Power Play. On the flip side, the Bruins have the 3rd Ranked Power Play @ 21.7% against the Red Wings Penalty Kill which is 12th @ 83%. Special Teams always have a great bearing on how these games are won and lost in the playoffs. Its fair to say that Boston has the better team. They have more firepower on Offense and they have a bang the body style Defense. Tukka Rask also gives Boston the edge in Net. However, Detroit is no stranger to the post season and its also safe to say that if they did not incur as many injuries, they may have been right up there with the Bruins in points. Nonetheless, this will be a hard fought series as these two teams are a part of the "Original 6/8". Detroit will put up a huge fight and this series is going 7. My pick is Boston to win in 7 Games.
3RD SEED ATLANTIC DIVISION
SECOND SEED ATLANTIC DIVISION
The Tampa Bay Lightning were also like the Canadians. They were up and down all season and were without their best player, Steven Stamkos for over half of the season. Stamkos was still able to finish the season with 40 Points (25G/15A) in 37 Games. The Lightning were not without their share of drama in 2014. First of all, the team failed to bring back team captain Vincent Lecavalier, who left for free agency and signed with Philly. After a long drawn out divorce with management, Martin St. Louis was traded to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline. This did not sit very well with the fans. Not only was St. Louis the Team's heart and soul, he was also their top scorer with 61 Points (29G/32A) in only 62 Games. And do not forget, this was mostly without team sniper Stamkos.
Even with all of the drama in Tampa, the Lightning finished second in the Atlantic to the Bruins. They played tough down the stretch. In Goal, the Lightning were lead by Ben Bishop. Bishop sported a 37-14-7 Record with a 2.23 GAA and a .924 SV% with 5 Shutouts in his rookie season. This was extremely impressive. The Defense was lead by Matt Carle and Victor Hedman who had 55 Points (13G/42A). Carle chipped in another 31 Points. The Lightning could be a dangerous team if they are able to get through the first round.
Matchup: The Canadians have stellar special teams. They were 4th in Penalty Kill with an 85.1%. On the Power Play they were 19th. Tampa on the other hand is 13th on the Power Play with 18.5% and they had the 23rd ranked Penalty Kill at 80%. This first round matchup is like the North VS South. Montreal from Canada and the Lightning from Florida. The loss of Martin Saint Louis hurts the Lightning's chances. He is an absolute beast on offense and had unbelievable chemistry with Steven Stamkos. The Canadians are excellent on the Penalty Kill and should be able to cancel out Tampa's mediocre Power Play. The xFactor in this series is Daniel Briere. Briere is MR. Playoff and his game is elevated to another stratosphere in the playoffs. Also, the addition of Vanek gives Montreal another scorer and more balance. Tampa has home ice but Montreal is no slouch. My pick is the Canadians will win the series in six games (4-2).
3RD SEED METROPOLITAN DIVISION
2ND SEED METROPOLITAN DIVISION
First of all, way back in October if someone told me that the Flyers would be a legitimate contender, let alone even a playoff team, I would have called you nuts. The Flyers began the season 3-9 and were the worst team in the NHL in every statistical category. Claude Giroux, the Team's Captain and Star was failed to score a goal until the Flyers 16th game against Edmonton. Then it started. The Flyers began to reel off large winning streaks. After going 3-9, the Flyers finished 39-21-10 which was the second best record during that span. The Flyers are the most balanced offense in hockey with an astounding 7- 20 Goal Scorers. Wayne Simmonds (29), Claude Giroux (28), Jakub Voracek (23), Matt Read (22), Brayden Schenn (20), Scott Hartnell (20), 3rd NHL). He had 28 Goals and 58 Assists. Hartnell, Voracek, and Simmonds all had over 50 points as well.
The Flyers were not only a balanced offensive team, but they also had a dynamic defense. Free Agent Mark Streit (Islanders former Captain), Andy McDonald (Islanders former Captain added at trade deadline), Braden Coburn, Niklas Grossmann, Kimmo Timmonen and Luke Schenn rounded out the bend but don't break defense. The Flyers also have Erik Gustaffson and veteran Hal Gill as strong reserves. The Flyers Defensive core is maybe a little older than most, however they do not make many stooped mistakes. And perhaps the most pleasant surprise for Flyers fans...and maybe not so pleasant for other teams...is that the Flyers finally have a Number 1 Goalie!!! Steve Mason won a career high 33 Games and went 33-18-7 with a 2.50 GAA and a .917 SV% with 4 Shutouts. In the past three months tho, Mason was lights out! Since February, Steve Mason is 14-4-2, 2.10 GAA, and a .928 Save Percentage.
The Rangers on the other hand, started out extremely hot then struggled during the middle of the season. Of course, they played well down the stretch and were able to gain home ice against the Flyers, which generally is an advantage for the home team in the first round. Mats Zuccarello lead the Rangers in scoring with 59 Points (19G/40A). Rick Nash had 26 Goals to lead the team and 39 Points. Derek Stepan had 57 Points (17G/40A). And the young defenseman Ryan McDonagh came into his own. McDonagh had 43 Points (14G/29A) and he will be among the leaders for the Norris Trophy. Dan Girardi was also a force to reckon with. At 6'1, 203 he is big but fast.
The Rangers MVP as always was goalie Henrik Lundqvist, fresh off of his Gold Medal. Henrik was 33-24-5 in 63 Starts, with a 2.36 GAA and a .920 SV%. Even though Mason's Numbers are equivalent, you cannot measure the importance of Lundqvist. He always makes the big stop, he rarely gives up the soft goal, he wins games single handedly, and he gives other teams fits. In 67 Playoff Games, Henrik is 30-37 with a 2.28 GAA and .928 SV% and 8 Shutouts. However, he has never faced the Flyers in the Playoffs.
Matchup: One would say that the Rangers are in the driver seat here. The Flyers were probably hoping to play Pittsburgh, due to their recent success against their interstate rivals. However, they are now faced with the task of playing the Rangers. Since 2011, the Flyers have had an ugly history at Madison Square Garden. They are 0-9 at the Garden. They have not had much more success at the Wachovia Center. But, this is the playoffs. The Flyers have been one of the hottest teams down the stretch and they can bring it on offense including special teams where the Rangers have struggled. If the Flyers can maintain composure and not take any stooped penalties, this series is very winnable for them. My pick is the Flyers in 7 Games. All of the games will be close, including two overtime games.
METROPOLITAN WILD CARD WINNER
METROPOLITAN DIVISION CHAMPIONS
The Blue Jackets also picked up Marian Gaborik from the New York Rangers as well as Brandon Dubinsky. However, the heart and soul of the Franchise is Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky came to the Blue Jackets three years ago in a trade from Philly. He won the Vezina Trophy that next year...boy I bet the Flyers brass kicks themselves everyday for that. Bob, as he is called, was 32-20-5 with a 2.38 GAA and a .923 SV%. He also chipped in 5 Shutouts. On Special Teams, Columbus is 11th on the Power Play and 14th on the Penalty Kill...right in the middle of the pack. This should be a very tough series for Columbus as Pittsburgh was and has been the early favorite to win the CUP.
The Pittsburgh Penguins virtually lead the Metropolitan Division from beginning till end. The team did however go through some adversity. The Penguins suffered many long term injuries, the most serious being Kris Letang, who actually had a stroke. Captain Sidney Crosby lead the entire league in scoring, once again with 104 Points (36G/68A). Malkin had 72 Points (23G/49A) and Chris Kunitz chipped in 68 Points (35G/33A). The Penguins have one of the most gifted teams in the playoffs...however they always seem to beat themselves. Marc-Andre Fleury was 39-18-5 with a 2.37 GAA and a .915 SV%. He had five shutouts as well. However, Fleury was inconsistent down the stretch and he will need to be good facing the young star Bobrovsky.
Matchup: The Blue Jackets are overmatched in this series. The Penguins are just too good to lose. However, for Columbus to have a chance...Pittsburgh will have to play undisciplined and the Blue Jackets will have to take advantage of every mistake. Columbus will also have to capitalize on penalties. I know the favorite is the Penguins folks...however, call me crazy but I see an upset here. The Blue Jackets win the series and win in six games. Am I Nuts???!!!!!
PACIFIC DIVISION WILD CARD
PACIFIC DIVISION CHAMPIONS
The Ducks on the other hand are the toast of the West once again. Ryan Getzlaf had a career year with 87 Points...second in the NHL. Getzlaf had 31 Goals and 56 Assists. He was second to only Sidney Crosby. The Ducks have another great one two punch with Corey Perry, who had 43 Goals and 39 Assists for 82 Points. The Ducks are a scoring machine and they play stellar defense. In Goal, the Ducks are lead by Jonas Hiller, who was 29-13-7, with a 2.48 GAA and a .911 SV%. Hiller started the most games for the Ducks. Anaheim comes into the series 13th on the Penalty Kill and 22 on the Power Play. However, they are the best team even strength. The Dallas Stars were 23rd on the Power Play and 21st on the Penalty Kill.
Matchup: Well, this series will be won five on five. Neither team has a top special teams unit (Power Play or Penalty Kill). The Stars have the better Goaltender. Anaheim has more scoring depth. This series will be a tough battle between two division rivals. Here is my upset Number two special...as Dallas wins the series in 7 Games. The Ducks are overrated and always perform great in the regular season, but they have been mediocre at best in the playoffs.
3RD SEED CENTRAL DIVISION
2ND SEED PACIFIC DIVISION
The Saint Louis Blues on the other hand were the surprise team in the NHL. For most of the 2014 season, the Blues were the best team in hockey. However, down the stretch they struggled mightily. As the trade deadline neared...the Blues made a move to sure up their goaltending. They sent the youngster Jaroslav Halak to the Boston Bruins for free agent to be Ryan Miller. The former Buffalo net minder had fell out of favor in the Big Apple and the Blues thought his addition would help the team have a shot at the cup. Alexander Steen lead the Blues with 62 Points (33G/29A). T.J. Oshie chipped in 60 Points with 29 Goals and 31 Assists. Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk provided a one two punch of offensive defenseman and stay at home defenseman.
Matchup: The Blues are home and had the better record. However, they are facing the defending champions. The Black Hawks are a dominant team and propose a lethal power play. Even after the big three (Sharp, Toews, and Kane), they also have Marian Hossa and Kris Verteeg, and not to mention the two time norris trophy winner Duncan Keith. For the Blues to win this series, it will take over the top goaltending by Miller to stop the Hawk attack. Unfortunately, I do not see this happening. My pick is for the Blackhawks to take the series in six games.
3RD SEED PACIFIC DIVISION
2ND SEED PACIFIC DIVISION
The San Jose Sharks are always at the top in the regular season. However, all of that success has transpired in only one Stanley Cup. Jay Pavelski (79-41G/38A), Joe Thornton (76-11G/65A), and Patrick Marleau (70-33G/37A) are the BIG 3. They all scored over 70 Points. And they also played in every game, which says something about the Sharks conditioning. Former Black Hawk Stanley Cup net minder, Anti Niemi was amazing. He went 39-17-7 in 64 games played. Niemi posted career numbers with a 2.39 GAA and a .913 SV%. Niemi also posted 4 Shutouts.
Matchup: Once again, I am going with the experience. Don't get me wrong, this will be a tough battle all series and will go seven games. LA will win in seven games though, once again ruining the Sharks incredible season.
CENTRAL WILD CARD WINNER
CENTRAL DIVISION CHAMPIONS