A new format has certainly created an interesting grouping of match-ups in this year's playoff structure. Also new is the "bracket" concept, which means that winners of a playoff grouping will automatically meet up with a winner of a divisional and conference grouping. No more re-seeding of match-ups in second, third and final rounds. In this sense, the Stanley Cup playoffs are a true bracket similar to "March Madness" in the NCAA men's and women's basketball. So, in case you need to know who will win the first round of the NHL playoffs, I humbly offer this assessment. Let the debate begin.
Boston Bruins vs Detroit Red Wings
Much has been made about the "original six" aspect of this match-up. Indeed, it is always special when a couple of old teams renew acquaintances. And much has been made of the fact that these are two perennial playoff participants. Boston has gone deep in the playoffs in many recent years. They are true playoff warriors. They feature a bruising group of forwards, a corps of defensemen who move the puck well and take care of business in their own zone, and an all-world goalie in Tukka Rask. They miss defenseman Dennis Seidenburg, but have compensated for this loss well. The Red Wings have also suffered from the injury bug, but seem to always find players from their AHL team to fill in. The Wings also have a fine goalie in Jimmy Howard, and probably the best coach in the NHL, if not the world, in Mike Babcock. This figures to be a good series and it will go 6 tough, hard-fought games. But, despite Babcock's genius for tactically managing a game, the winner of this series will be the Boston Bruins.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs Montreal Canadiens
Pittsburgh has been one of the NHL's more exciting and also one of its most enigmatic teams over the last few years. They are loaded with talent, featuring perhaps two of the most talented players in the game, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Malkin may be banged up a bit at this time of writing, but the supporting cast is solid. The one aspect of the game that is the most inconsistent is goaltending, with Marc-Andre Fleury still on the cusp of stardom, but not quite there. Dan Bylsma is one of the game's more underrated coaches too. As for the Columbus Blue Jackets, two things emerge: first, they did well down the stretch to win a playoff spot as a wild card team: second, it is remarkable that the city of Columbus, Ohio has a team. This one figures to be a short series. Columbus did well just to qualify and it will be over mercifully quick for them. The winner in 4 straight will be the Pittsburgh Penguins.
New York Rangers vs Philadelphia Flyers
This figures to be the nastiest series in the first round. Both teams hate each other and play tough hockey, which is needed in the playoffs. The Rangers have made many changes during the last off-season and during the regular season as well. They surprise everyone with any success they have, and it's mostly due to good goaltending from Henrick Lundquist and solid coaching from Alain Vigneult. As for the Flyers, they seem to knock on the door of success every year. Vinny Lecavalier seems to have settled in for solid, but not spectacular play, and Hartnell and Simmons lend tough play along the boards. Claude Giroux, if healthy, is one of the most talented players in the game. The Flyers' Achilles heel, as always, is goaltending. As of this writing, Bob Mason may not be available, or if he is, he may be banged up. Despite the obvious goaltending edge to the Rangers, the outcome will be close and bloody. In seven war-like games, the winner will be the Philadelphia Flyers.
Chicago Blackhawks vs St. Louis Blues
A week or so ago, I would have said that this would be the best first-round series. Both clubs had stellar seasons and seem to have the players and coaches to win it all. But the Blues have gone into an injury-induced death spiral over the last few games. I believe they are on a 6 game losing streak to close out the regular season, and prize acquisition Ryan Miller has been less than spectacular. The 'Hawks have been banged up too, with stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane out with nagging injuries, but they figure to be back and contributing to the cup defense. If the Blues get their stars back from sick bay, ( Oshie, Pietrangelo, Shattenkirck ) they will give the 'Hawks all they can handle, but class wins out all the time. Joel Quennville is a much underrated coach, and Kevin Hitchcock, while a competent coach, is, in my view, overrated. So it will go 6 games, with the winner being the Chicago Blackhawks.
Colorado Avalanche vs Minnesota Wild
I don't really know much about these two teams. I do know that the Avalanche were a bunch of also-rans last year, so their turn-around is nothing short of remarkable. The addition of one of the truly psychotic personalities in the game, namely their coach, Patrick Roy, has been instrumental. After that, I don't really know much. As for the Wild, well .... Minnesota likes hockey, so they will be glad to be in the playoffs. How many games? Who will win? Who will care !! But for the record, I'll say 6 games that nobody will watch and Colorado, by virtue of the fact that they had more points, will win.
San Jose Sharks vs Los Angeles Kings
San Jose is a perennially good team that never seems to go anywhere. It won't be much different this year . Los Angeles won the Cup recently but that really doesn't matter. The Kings still have potentially the best goalie in the Western Conference in Jonathan Quick, and Drew Doughty on defense and Anze Kopitar up front are among the better players in the league. History and experience are with the Los Angeles Kings in 6 games. But, truthfully, does anyone care ?
Anaheim Ducks vs Dallas Stars
I know so very little about these teams, it's a bit embarrassing. Maybe one of them will get on an unholy roll and go all the way ? Nah, not going to happen. I know the Ducks have Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, two pretty good players. And I know that one of the Dallas Stars had a heart attack during the regular season, so the Stars will be motivated to play for him. But this is such an irrelevant series, it really doesn't matter. It will be over in 4 games and the winner will be the Anaheim Ducks in probably the most one-sided series. Or maybe both teams will just surrender now?
So, there you have it. Enter your NHL brackets now and enjoy the games. It will be a long and eventful ride.