NHL Playoffs are back tonight and the first round is often the best round of the post-season. Given some of the match-ups we have this year, that may hold true once again. Let’s take a closer look at each series (Red Wings vs. Bruins preview will be posted Friday).
Pittsburgh vs. Columbus. The Blue Jackets make just their second trip to the second season since joining the NHL 14 years ago while the Pens are still trying to get back to the Stanley Cup Final after winning it all in 2009 then having their goalie self-combust the next four post-seasons. But the BJs aren’t just happy to be here, they want to prove they’re a team on the right track (they are). Coach Todd Richards should just study the hell out of the Bruins from last year’s ECF and do what Claude did. The top-heavy Pens won the season series 5-0 but that’s irrelevant now, largely because Sergei Bobrovsky only played in one game. Look for Columbus to play a patient, grinding style and to take advantage of their opportunities. Also, look for them to win thanks to yet another MAF meltdown. Blue Jackets in 6.
New York vs. Philadelphia. Ah, nothing like some old Patrick Division hate to get the first round nice and nasty. Though the Rags have some scoring balance, they still sometimes struggle to score when they need to. But they have a decided advantage in the pipes with Hank Lundqvist, regardless if Philly starts Steve Mason or Ray Emery. Craig Berube, who replaced Peter Laviolette early in the season, has been just what the Flyers needed. He led the Flyers out of an early season morass and into the playoffs after all hope looked lost. MVP candidate Claude Giroux was the major reason why. Despite the disparity in net, the Flyers forwards will make up the difference, sort of like they did back in 2010. Flyers in 7.
Tampa Bay vs. Montreal. This series has the potential to be one for the ages. The fabled Canadiens, with an interesting mix of vets and kids, taking on the best sniper in the game, Steven Stamkos, along with his two rookie sharpshooters, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. The Habs have a huge advantage with Carey Price, particularly considering that TB goalies Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback have a combined one playoff game played between them. But they also carry all of the pressure here because, well, they’re Montreal playing a Florida team—regardless of what the seedings say (honestly, just ignore seed numbers at this stage of the game). Expect a wild one with these two very evenly matched teams. Also, expect Tampa to somehow pull a series win out of their ass. Lightning in 7.
Colorado vs. Minnesota. The battle of outdoorsy nicknames and double-use logos is certainly an intriguing one. The Avs became the first team ever to pick #1 overall then win their division, thanks in large part to the fiery-bordering-on-insane Patrick Roy. He was able to harness all of Colorado’s talent up front and, along with goalie coach Francois Allaire, turn Semyon Varlamov into a 40-game winner this year. But the Avs will be without star Matt Duchene, who has a banged up knee. Minnesota hasn’t had a significant playoff run since 2003 when Andrew Brunette sent Colorado packing and put a bow on Roy’s career in the Western Conference Semis. Though they picked up some big FA help recently, they still can never seem to get over the hump. Roy will get a semblance of payback for ’03. Also, no fucking way am I picking a team with Matt Cooke on it. Avalanche in 6.
St. Louis vs. Chicago. Classic little brother against big brother battle right here. The Hawks have won two of the last four Cups while the Blues have been looking for a playoff goalie since Glenn Hall. But they just may have found him in Ryan Miller. This will be a great coaching battle between Ken Hitchcock and Joel Quenneville. The Blues play a grinding, wear-you-down style and have a great defensive coach in Hitchcock but do have trouble scoring on occasion. That’s a problem against a team like Chicago. However, the Hawks’ two big guns are both coming off injury and the team has played a shitload of hockey in the last couple years (including Olympics). But even so, they still seem to plug their holes efficiently by summoning a kid or two from Rockford. Not to mention, they’re still loaded up front. Still, I think Hitch goes trap (or similar) to slow down the speedy Hawks and St. Louis finally gets postseason-worthy goaltending. Blues in 7.
Anaheim vs. Dallas. This is another series that looks great on paper. The Ducks have the two-headed monster of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, the Stars have Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, who both had career years. Anaheim will need to utilize their advantage on D to counteract Dallas, which burns more speed than Skinny Pete and Badger. Also, Bruce Boudreau has had some post-season hiccups and will be in for quite the battle with the playoff-tested Lindy Ruff. I’d expect Jonas Hiller to be the Ducks goalie. As for Dallas, Kari Lehtonen has just two playoff games under his belt (from back in ’07…in Atlanta). If he falters or tweaks one of his many career injuries…oh no! That’s Tim Thomas’s music!!! I’d love to see Teemu Selanne get a shot at Cup #2 but think the playoff pressure Dallas has been playing under for a month (and Ruff) will be the difference. Stars in 7.
San Jose vs. Los Angeles. Possibly the most-anticipated first round match-up. Featuring two teams that harbor legit Cup chances. One will be in Vegas in two weeks, wondering how it all went wrong while knee-deep in booze and broads. For SJ, it’s the same old song: can they get over the hump? Only this hump is the first round and it’s against Jonathan Quick, one of the top goalies in the world. LA is looking to get back to the SCF after winning it all in 2012. These are two incredibly matched squads both up front and and on the back end. And Antti Niemi is no slouch, having led the Hawks to the ’10 Cup. But Quick is just too good. Kings in 7.
Not a shitload of value in this first round due to the parity of the teams so there won’t be too much betting. But for series plays, I’m taking Columbus +250 and Los Angeles +120 (as well as Game One wagers on each). Good luck to all.