The Boston Bruins are the favorites to capture their second Stanley Cup in the past four years when the NHL’s new playoff format debuts Wednesday with three games involving two wild card teams (Columbus and Dallas), two division winners (Anaheim and Pittsburgh) and Atlantic Division rivals Tampa Bay and Montreal.
The Bruins captured the Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points thanks to a torrid March and enviable forward depth, but several teams have legitimate shots at the top prize, including the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins, the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks and a litany of elite Western Conference teams that includes Anaheim, Colorado, St. Louis, San Jose and Los Angeles.
Goalies: Jonas Hiller’s numbers (2.48 GAA, .911 save percentage) are mediocre, but Anaheim’s goalie doesn’t play behind a defensively tight team. If the Ducks keep scoring at their current pace, he won’t need to be brilliant. Nobody played more games (65) this season than Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen, who has a solid .919 save percentage despite the Stars’ defensive deficiencies (2.73 goals against per game).
Key players: Scrappy Dallas center Vernon Fiddler will be asked to corral Anaheim center Ryan Getzlaf, a Hart Trophy candidate. Fiddler did the job in a 1-0 victory in late January, but a lengthy series is a far greater challenge. Former Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas was acquired to lend some poise to the Ducks blue line. He has logged close to 22 minutes a game in April and will play a shutdown role against Dallas’ skill players.
Breakdown: Of all the first-round opponents to draw, Anaheim probably got the best matchup when it drew Dallas. Aside from the fact that the Stars finished eighth in the West, they are not a particularly strong possession team so that same, season-long weakness of the Ducks may not be exposed here. Anaheim and Dallas both have mediocre to subpar special teams as well, so that appears to wash away the Ducks’ two greatest concerns for one series. Both teams have plenty of firepower in their top lines but Anaheim has a little better depth — especially with Stars center Rich Peverley (heart condition) out. Ducks third-line left wing Andrew Cogliano and fourth-line center Nick Bonino both topped 20 goals. A key will be how Anaheim matches up with Dallas’ top line that features center Tyler Seguin and left wing Jamie Benn. Conversely, the Stars have to find a way to corral an MVP candidate in Getzlaf, who finished second in the NHL to Sidney Crosby in points (87) this season. Anaheim was upset in the first round last season by Detroit after a strong season, so the Ducks have plenty to prove. They’re also riding the emotions of beloved wing Teemu Selanne’s final season.
Prediction: Anaheim in 7.
CENTRAL NO. 1 COLORADO (52-22-8) vs. WILD CARD NO. 1 MINNESOTA (43-27-12)
Season series: Colorado, 4-1.
Goalies: Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov has been among the league leaders in save percentage all season (.927), but must prove it in the postseason where he has a career 10-9 record. Speaking of proving it in the postseason, Minnesota’s Ilya Bryzgalov was 7-0-3 in 10 starts with a 1.65 goals-against average before Sunday’s sluggish season finale, but he’s 8-14 in his last 22 playoff starts as the No. 1 goalie, allowing 78 goals.
Key players: Only five teams allow more shots per game than Colorado (32.6) and none of them made the playoffs. Goalies are always critical to playoff success, but for the defensively suspect Avs and Varlamov, that goes double. The same goes for Minnesota, which made the playoffs despite no goalie starting more than 26 games or playing more than 29. Bryzgalov has been a train wreck in past postseasons. He’s getting another shot.
Breakdown: Minnesota’s season was saved when it rallied for three third-period goals to win at Phoenix on March 29. The Wild were in a free fall at the time, having won just four times in 12 games. But the Phoenix win started a 6-1 run heading into the season finale. Minnesota is predicated on defense. The Wild were allowing 2.36 goals per game, the sixth-best mark in the NHL — slightly less than they score (2.42) per game. Due to better depth, the Wild were able to withstand key injuries to captain Mikko Koivu and second-leading scorer Zach Parise. Colorado is the most surprising team in the NHL. Picked by many to miss the playoffs due to defensive deficiencies, the Avs came close to nabbing the top seed in the superior Western Conference and overtook both Chicago and St. Louis for the Central crown. Colorado’s forward skill is as good any team with Matt Duchene (injured), Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly, Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny. Coach of the Year candidate Patrick Roy drives the Avs and has them believing, but can this style fuel a deep postseason run?
Prediction: Colorado in 7.
CENTRAL NO. 2 ST. LOUIS (52-23-7) vs. CENTRAL NO. 3 CHICAGO (46-21-15)
Season series: St. Louis, 3-2.
Goalies: Few Stanley Cup-winning goalies inspire less confidence than Chicago’s Corey Crawford, but he’s played well since returning from a lower-body injury on Jan. 2. Crawford is tied for 20th in save percentage at .917 on a team that plays loose. No goalie will be under more pressure to perform than St. Louis’ Ryan Miller after he was acquired to be the final piece for a Cup run. Miller’s save percentage in his last 11 games is barely above .800.
Key players: Aside from Miller, St. Louis must prove it can score enough to complement its hard-checking, tight defensive game. The banged-up Blues scored two goals or fewer in all eight April games, losing their final six. If Alex Steen and David Backes can’t get it going, St. Louis could falter like last postseason, when its 1.67 goals a game led to an L.A. sweep. Chicago’s Michal Handzus, 37, will try to reprise his 2013 postseason role as the No. 2 center. This has been a hole in the Chicago lineup for years.
Key stats: Chicago’s penalty-killing unit is ranked 20th in the NHL at 81.4 percent. St. Louis has won one playoff series in the last 10 seasons.
Breakdown: One month ago, St. Louis looked like the Stanley Cup favorite and Chicago looked like it was settling into a post-Cup malaise. But while the Blackhawks will get rested stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane back for the playoffs and look to be relatively healthy, St. Louis is dealing with a laundry list of injuries to forwards. T.J. Oshie (head), David Backes (foot), Vladimir Tarasenko (hand), Brenden Morrow (foot), Vladimir Sobotka (lower body) and Patrik Berglund (shoulder), who all missed the season finale. The Blues have been under intense pressure ever since acquiring Miller, but St. Louis hasn’t been to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1970 and hasn’t been to the conference finals since 2001. Chicago has looked disinterested at times this season after winning its second Cup in the past four years. The Blackhawks’ defensive play and penalty killing have been nowhere near the level of those two Cup-winning teams, but there is a mind-boggling level of playoff experience and skill on this roster with Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith all warranting the world-class player label.
Prediction: Chicago in 6.
PACIFIC NO. 2 SAN JOSE (51-22-9) vs. PACIFIC NO. 3 LOS ANGELES (46-28-8)
Season series: Los Angeles, 3-2.
Goalies: Sharks coach Todd McLellan hasn’t said whether Antti Niemi or Alex Stalock will start Game 1, but Niemi (2.39 GAA, .913 save percentage) has vast postseason experience, having played in 56 playoff games and won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010. Stalock (1.87, .932) has never played in the postseason. Jonathan Quick, the 2012 Conn Smythe winner, makes L.A. a perennial threat with career postseason numbers of 2.03 and .929.
Key players: Sharks forward Joe Pavelski has been a consistent postseason scorer, but San Jose will benefit from the return of forwards Tomas Hertl and Raffi Torres, who are both recovering from knee injuries/surgery, and are expected to play. Hertl had 25 points in 35 games before the injury. Torres brings a gritty, physical, get-under-your-skin presence. L.A. center Anze Kopitar will need his trademark possession and defensive games in order. He regularly plays against the Logan Couture-Patrick Marleau combination.
Key stats: San Jose and L.A. are tied for second in faceoff-winning percentage at 52.8.
Breakdown: Of all the first-round series, this one may boast the best center depth with Joe Thornton, Couture and sometimes Pavelski matching Kopitar, Mike Richards and Stoll. That’s where the possession game starts so that’s where this series could be decided. There’s also the fact that both goaltenders have strong track records of playoff success, with both having won Stanley Cups. Since the 2011 playoffs, the road team has lost 20 of the last 22 games in this series. That may not be as big a factor in the postseason, but the Sharks have home-ice advantage and they are eyeing payback after L.A. knocked them out of the conference semifinals in seven games last season. Given both teams’ ability to play the hard, heavy style emblematic of the postseason, this may be the most hotly contested series in the West. Los Angeles never seems to dominate the regular season but we still like the Kings’ built-for-playoffs roster and their history in the clutch.