By Sean Hartnett
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The 100-day regular season sprint is over. If you love hockey, Tuesday's start of the NHL playoffs feels like Christmas Day. The shortened 48-game season has left some unexpected matchups under the first-round playoff tree as well as some familiar rivalries. All "Original Six" franchises qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1996 and five teams that missed out on the 2012 playoffs made the cut in 2013.
Predicting the abbreviated 2012-13 season was extremely difficult as this year's playoff seeding turned out to be entirely different from last year's playoffs. No returning team retains the same playoff seed. Choosing this year's Stanley Cup winner isn't an exact science. While it's easy to favor the overwhelmingly strong regular-season finishes of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks, the playoffs are an entirely different animal.
Without further ado, here are my fearless 2013 NHL playoff predictions.
(1) PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS. (8) NEW YORK ISLANDERS
The Penguins still haven't made a decision on whether superstar captain Sidney Crosby will be ready for Wednesday's playoff opener against the Isles. Even in the unlikely scenario that Crosby misses the entire opening round, this series has a "David versus Goliath feel."
It won't be easy for the upstart Islanders to topple the mighty Penguins, who added Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen to an already loaded roster. Adding playoff-starved leaders in Iginla and Morrow adds a lot of fire to the Penguins. These guys have waited a very long time for their chance to return to the Stanley Cup finals and are desperate to make good on a late career shot at glory.
As good as the Penguins are, they have weaknesses that can be exploited. I'm still not convinced by their shaky blue line even with the addition of the hulking Murray and there is massive pressure on Marc-Andre Fleury to rebound from a nightmare 2012 playoffs.
John Tavares and the Islanders surprised the entire hockey world by beating out conventional favorites such as the New Jersey Devils to land a spot in hockey's big dance. This Islanders team is stronger and deeper than it's been in a very long time and 37-year-old net-minder Evgeni Nabokov is coming off a tremendous regular season.
As fun as the Islanders' unlikely ride has been, it's going to come to an end against the Penguins. For Tavares, Josh Bailey and Travis Hamonic to gain this kind of experience will serve the Isles well in the future.
Prediction: Penguins in 5.
(2) MONTREAL CANADIENS VS. (7) OTTAWA SENATORS
I bet you didn't have the Canadiens winning the Northeast Division. This team has proven a lot of people wrong. The Habs are blessed with speed and skill and added a good mix of grit to their roster.
A player who has changed the image of the Canadiens is former Rangers tough-guy Brandon Prust. He's added a whole new dimension of physicality to this team. Still, the Canadiens have a number of scoring aces led by Max Pacioretty. Rookie duo Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher are two players to watch. Galchenyuk is a dazzling playmaker and Gallagher is a high-energy speedster.
Defenseman P.K. Subban makes an impact in a number of areas. Subban has developed into a true power play quarterback, brings a ton of physicality and is capable of shutting down top opposing forwards.
Carey Price must elevate his game and prove himself under the playoff spotlight. Meanwhile, Sens net-minder Craig Anderson enjoyed an unbelievable year. Anderson posted a remarkable 1.69 goals against average in 2013.
The Senators are hoping the miraculous return of reigning Norris Trophy defenseman Erik Karlsson will inspire them. This team has played above their talent level all season and head coach Paul MacLean squeezes the most out of his group. Otttawa will battle hard, but the Habs are by far the more talented roster.
Prediction: Canadiens in 6
(3) WASHINGTON CAPITALS VS. (6) NEW YORK RANGERS
Alex Ovechkin versus Henrik Lundqvist. It doesn't get more entertaining than this matchup of supreme scorer and all-world goaltender. Ovechkin in all likelihood will win the Hart Trophy after guiding the Caps to a sensational 15-2-2 finish and Lundqvist is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner.
There's a lot of recent history between these two familiar playoff rivals. The Capitals still have bitter taste in their mouths after losing to the Rangers in seven games in last year's conference semifinals. Ovechkin is particularly motivated to put last year's playoff misery behind him.
Heading into the 2013 season, the Rangers were expected earn a top-tier playoff seed after acquiring gifted winger Rick Nash. The move left the Blueshirts short of depth and general manager Glen Sather was forced to make a number of moves to change the character of his roster. The Rangers are now a deeper team after adding playmaker Derick Brassard, rugged winger Ryane Clowe and smooth-skating defenseman John Moore.
Depth is an issue for the Caps. There's not a lot of forward scoring depth behind Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro. If the Caps' top players aren't performing, it could be an easy series for Lundqvist. I think Washington has a weak underbelly and Braden Holtby is a solid enough goalie – but not one who can dominate a series.
The Rangers' struggles on special teams have been well-documented. Their penalty kill is not where it needs to be heading into the playoffs, but their power play has received a recent boost. This is partially due to Brad Richards rediscovering his confidence and poise. In addition, Derek Stepan has been hot down the stretch, ending April with 19 points in 14 games. Having Richards on the third line will present a lot of problems for the Caps.
Ovechkin and Lundqvist are capable of winning games on their own, but what this series comes down to is that the Rangers even without Marc Staal are the far better unit from top-to-bottom.
Prediction: Rangers in 6.
(4) BOSTON BRUINS VS. (5) TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
This series has old-school hockey feel written all over it. Two physical, nasty, 'Original Six' rivals in the Bruins and Maple Leafs are ready to trade blows in what has the makings of a powder keg series.
While the Bruins were the preseason favorites of many to win Presidents Trophy, their play tailed-off in the final quarter of the season. The Bruins have a ton of experience with plenty of players left over from their 2011 Stanley Cup-winning team and are very strong on the blue line with Zdeno Chara highlighting Boston's wealth of physical defenseman.
The Bruins were able to add the savvy, veteran scoring touch of Jaromir Jagr to an already deep group of scoring forwards that include Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin. Worrying for the Bruins are the struggles of Milan Lucic. They desperately need Lucic to show up as when he's on his game, teammates follow his nasty, intimidating nature.
Meanwhile, the Leafs are an interesting "dark horse" kind of team. Despite their inexperience, you can make a solid case on why the Leafs might win this series. Nazem Kadri took a massive leap forward in his development by scoring 44 points in 48 games. The Leafs have a number of game-changing forwards of their own in Kadri, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. I have every belief that playoff newcomer goalie James Reimer can go toe-to-toe with sensational Bruins' net-minder Tuukka Rask.
My gut is telling me that the Leafs can out-nasty the much-favored Bruins and "Optimus Reim" will perform strongly enough in net to upset the Bruins in an epic first-round series.
Prediction: Leafs in 7.
(1) CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS VS. (8) MINNESOTA WILD
The Blackhawks are oozing depth across four forward lines and three defensive pairings. Meanwhile, the Wild lack depth behind captain Mikko Koivu and summer splurges Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Sure, they added Jason Pominville as the trade deadline – but the Wild are short on veterans as a whole and are shorthanded without key scorer Dany Heatley, who misses the rest of the season due to shoulder surgery.
Chicago excels on special teams. They're a top three team on the power play and the penalty kill. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are standout players, but the Hawks' talented third line of Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg shouldn't be overlooked as a key to their success. They also possess a wall of elite blue liners in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook protecting net-minder Corey Crawford.
I'm not entirely sold on Crawford being a Stanley Cup-caliber goalie and the Wild have an underrated, yet highly talented net-minder between the pipes in Niklas Backstrom. The thing is, the Blackhawks are so talented that Crawford's play won't be crucial this series or perhaps in the later rounds.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 5.
(2) ANAHEIM DUCKS VS. (7) DETROIT RED WINGS
The Ducks are a handful for opponents on the power play and this comes down to whether the Red Wings can shut down the Ducks' electric power play.
This is a very different Red Wings team that years past and the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom looms largely over this franchise. New captain Henrik Zetterberg enjoyed a strong 2013 season and inspired the Wings down the stretch. We all know that Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk can score with the best of 'em. Detroit misses Lidstrom the stabilizing player more than they do Lidstrom the leader. General manager Ken Holland failed to add a veteran presence on his blue line in the summer and at the trade deadline.
Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is a superb goaltender, but he doesn't have enough protection in front of him. On the other side of the ice, there is a goaltending battle between Jonas Hiller and 30-year-old rookie Viktor Fasth. I expect Bruce Boudreau to lean on the experience of Hiller.
I can't see the Wings stifiling the firepower of Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and immortal 42-year-old Teemu Selanne. "The Finnish Flash" suffered a significant drop-off in production, but he's still capable of rediscovering his magic touch under the playoff spotlight. The Ducks simply have far too much ammunition for the Wings to handle.
Prediction: Ducks in 5.
(3) VANCOUVER CANUCKS VS. (6) SAN JOSE SHARKS
Both of these teams are long-overdue to win the Stanley Cup and their coaches are under tremendous pressure to deliver. I think both the Canucks and Sharks missed their window of opportunity.
When I look down the Canucks' roster, this team needs someone other than the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler to step up and deliver the goods. This team has battled injuries all season and their biggest worry has come on the eve of the playoffs.
Number one goalie Cory Schneider suffered a mysterious injury that forced Roberto Luongo back into the spotlight. Both are very capable net-minders, but it's a distraction the Canucks could have done without.
The Sharks are blessed with a wealth of scorers. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are the names on everyone's minds, but I'm expecting Joe Pavelski to have a huge series.
A big difference in this year's Sharks team is their major improvement on the penalty kill to sixth-best in the NHL. Still, San Jose typically tends to struggle on the road and Antii Niemi is a very streaky goalie. I see the health of the Canucks being a big factor and the Sharks winning in six.
Prediction: Sharks 6.
(4) ST. LOUIS BLUES VS. (5) LOS ANGELES KINGS
Similar to the four versus five seed in the East, the Blues and Kings are set to play out a nasty series full of raw emotion. The Blues are looking to erase memories of last year's four-game sweep at the hands of the Kings in the conference semifinals.
It's going to be a highly charged series as both teams possess inspirational captains who initiate and use their physicality to set a tremendous tone. Blues' captain David Backes is a freight train and Kings' captain Dustin Brown is a bulldozer. It's going to get chippy, it's going to get nasty and this series will probably go the full-distance of seven games.
The Blues are a defensive-first team that might not have the "star power" of the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings. What the Blues do have is a terrific amount of depth on the blue line, especially after adding Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold at the trade deadline.
A lot of questions have been asked about Blues' net-minder Brian Elliott, but he finished April with a 11-2-0 record, whereas his opponent Jonathan Quick has the hardware to prove his capability of returning to the finals. Quick on the other hand, needs to raise his game once the playoffs get underway.
The Kings have the scoring edge and Jeff Carter carried L.A. for parts of the season. That being said, the Blues have perfected their shutdown game right before the playoffs. They've limited opponents to least shots on goal of any playoff team. It will be a close series, but I see the Blues edging the defending champs.
Prediction: Blues in 7.
(1) Penguins over (6) Rangers in six games.
(2) Canadiens over (5) Leafs in five games.
(1) Blackhawks over (6) Sharks in five games.
(4) Blues over (2) Ducks in six games.
(2) Canadiens over (1) Penguins in seven games.
(1) Blackhawks over (4) Blues in six games.
STANLEY CUP FINAL:
(1) Blackhawks over (2) Canadiens in five games.
Conn Smythe Winner: Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks.
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