Penalty Minutes: Anaheim, Montreal favored for Stanley Cup runs

Will the Montreal Canadiens end Canada's 20-year Stanley Cup drought this postseason?

Eric Bolte/Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Unpredictability. It’s what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs maybe the most exciting of all of the North America pro sports leagues’ postseason tournaments.

In the NBA, upsets are rare and it’s often easy to pick the favorite from the outset. The same holds true in the NFL. Denver making the Super Bowl was no shocker, nor was Seattle. If anything, it was the size of the Seahawks’ margin of victory in the game itself that proved the biggest shock. And in Major League Baseball, so few teams qualify that any series win hardly seems an upset.

Not so in the Stanley Cup Final. In 2012, Los Angeles dominated the field as a No. 8 seed to win the whole thing. In 2010, Philadelphia gained the Cup Final as a No. 7 seed. Edmonton reached Game 7 of the 2006 Cup Final as a No. 8 seed, falling to Carolina.

With that upset-minded spirit, we offer the following predictions.

First Round

No. 1 Boston vs. No. 4 Detroit: The Bruins, owner of the league’s best regular season record and dominant for the final 20 games of the season, win this relatively easily. They’re better and healthier in almost every way. Bruins in five, maybe six.

No. 2 Tampa Bay vs. No. 3 Montreal: Habs GM Marc Bergevin made possibly the best deal at the trade deadline and it’s still paying dividends in the form of right wing Thomas Vanek. Playing with left wing Max Pacioretty (39 goals) and center Davis Desharnais, they have formed the best line in the league over the past few weeks. That will continue and Tampa Bay’s defense, led by Victor Hedman, won’t be able to stop them. Canadiens in six.

No. 1 Pittsburgh vs. No. 4 Columbus: Upset pick here. The Blue Jackets are overdue for some playoff success. They have excellent depth and the better goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky. The Penguins’ aging defensemen Rob Scuderi, 35, and Brooks Orpik, 33, will have trouble keeping up with the Blue Jackets’ speed. Artem Anisimov plays the hero for Columbus, which claims the battle of I-70 in seven.

No. 2 New York Rangers vs. No. 3 Philadelphia: A contrast in styles. Rangers have the better goalie in Henrik Lundqvist and the better defense led by Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Scoring is a problem, however. The Flyers’ are shakier in goal and, especially on defense, but are far more prolific offensively, led by Claude Giroux, whose 86 points ranked third in the NHL. In the playoffs, defense wins. Rangers in seven.

Second Round

Boston vs. Montreal: Hockey fans’ delight at one of the game’s oldest and best rivalries. All of the pressure will be on the Bruins, the defending conference champions and the ’11 Cup winners. The Canadiens have proved giant killers in recent history, as Jaroslav Halak took down the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in 2010. The Habs do it again behind Carey Price in an epic, bloody series. Montreal in seven.

Columbus vs. New York Rangers: Between Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik, these two teams have made trades so often, the players might get confused as to which team they play for. Columbus’ 21-year-old Ryan Johansen, with his 33 goals this season, becomes a break-out star. Columbus’ miracle run continues. Blue Jackets in seven.

Conference Finals

Montreal vs. Columbus: Not much history here. Almost none in fact. Montreal coach Michel Therrien, one of the league’s under-appreciated bench bosses, gets a team to the Cup Final for the second time (Pittsburgh in ’08 was the other). The lone Canadian team in the field advances to the Cup Final. Montreal in five.

First Round

No. 1 Anaheim vs. No. 4 Dallas: The young Stars are just happy to be there after a five-year playoff drought. The grizzled Ducks, Cup champions in 2007, are determined, as is coach Bruce Boudreau, who has tasted little playoff success. Ducks sweep the Stars.

No. 2 San Jose vs. No. 3 Los Angeles: All the experts are picking the Kings just like all the experts picked Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. How did that turn out? In a contrarian move, Sharks, and their firepower, find a way against the stingy Kings’ defense. Sharks in seven.

No. 1 Colorado vs. No. 4 Minnesota: It’s a sad thing for a team to have to lean on goalie Ilya Bryzgalov in a pressure-packed situation, as Philadelphia learned the hard way. The Wild have had to use five goalies this season, owing to Josh Harding’s unfortunate condition with MS. The Avalanche are rolling. They keep rolling. Avs win in five, maybe six.

No. 2 St. Louis vs. No. 3 Chicago: One of the best series of the first round. Chicago gets healthy (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane return) while the Blues’ injury luck worsens. The Blues, who won the season series 3-2, enter on a six-game losing streak and can’t turn things around. Could be the end of coach Ken Hitchcock’s era in St. Louis. Defending Cup champion Blackhawks win in six.

Second Round

Anaheim vs. San Jose: The Ducks keep pouring it on offensively. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry cannot be stopped by the Sharks defense or goalie Antti Niemi. Even Teemu Selanne, in his swansong at age 43, gets in on the act. Ducks in five.

Chicago vs. Colorado: The Blackhawks finally run out of gas. The Avalanche are younger and hungrier and the Blackhawks keep getting stymied by Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov, who channels his coach Patrick Roy, the former all-time great goalie. Avalanche in seven.

Conference Finals

Anaheim vs. Colorado: The coaches, Boudreau and Roy, engage in plenty off-ice verbal jousting, which adds even more color to a vivid series. The Ducks’ defense, with Francois Beauchemin and the young Cam Fowler, proves more adept at containing the Avs’ high-flying forwards. Ducks advance to their third Cup Final since 2003. They win in six.

Montreal defensemen Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban are skilled and mobile but they can’t handle Getzlaf and Perry. Goalie Jonas Hiller backstops the Ducks to the Cup but, as is the case with other recent goalies like Chicago and Niemi in ’10, doesn’t get the credit and leaves via free agency after the season. Getzlaf wins the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. For the second time in eight seasons, the Ducks take down a Canadian team to win the Cup. Canada’s Cup drought extends to 21 years, as Montreal fails to win its first Cup since 1993. Ducks in six.

Every now and then a team suffers a cataclysmic injury on the eve of the playoffs. In 2006, Nashville finished with the sixth-best overall record in the NHL, but starting goalie Tomas Vokoun came down with a blood clot in his pelvis and was unavailable for the playoffs. The Predators lost in the first round.

This season, Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop finished fourth in the NHL in wins with 37 but his availability for the first round against Montreal remains uncertain after Bishop fell to the ice awkwardly on his left arm in a game on April 8. Coach Jon Cooper told reporters last week it’s "not impossible" that Bishop could play "at some point" in the first round. Well, that’s encouraging.

That means the Lightning, in all likelihood, the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Division, will go into the playoffs with Anders Lindback as their No. 1. Not that long ago, the news that Lindback would start the playoffs would have elicited images of Edvard Monch’s "The Scream" from Tampa Bay fans.

From the start of February, Lindback had played a total of twice until Bishop went down in the April 8 game. However, Lindback has made the most of his opportunity. He went 3-0 in the Lightning’s final three games, allowing only two goals in 179 minutes, and was named the NHL’s first star of the week. This is how it was supposed to be for the 6-foot-6 Swede when general manager Steve Yzerman paid a heavy price for him from Nashville in 2012: two second-round picks and a third-round pick with a couple of minor-leaguers and a late-round pick thrown in by Nashville. Yzerman, it seems, might have thought he had the second coming of the Predators 6-foot-5 goalie Pekka Rinne, a two-time Vezina Trophy (best goalie) finalist.

Alas, it has not worked out that way.

In Lindback’s two seasons in Tampa Bay, he has a record of 18-22-3 with a .902 save percentage last season — the reason Yzerman acquired Bishop from Ottawa in April of last year — that dipped to .891 this season, which is the fourth-worst in the league this season among goalies who have played at least 16 games. But in the past three games Lindback is showing more of the form that he did when he served as Rinne’s back-up during two seasons in Nashville.

"He’s playing with a lot of confidence and, I said it time and time again, that is just a great guy and he works his tail off,” defenseman Matt Carle told the Tampa Tribune. "So it’s no surprise to see how well he’s doing. And it’s just great for our team and we have a lot of confidence playing in front of him.”

There is always a chance for redemption and perhaps this is Lindback’s.

It would seem impossible for a team to go into the playoffs in any worse of a fashion than the St. Louis Blues did.

Less than two weeks ago, the Blues were talking about winning the Presidents’ Trophy, which would have secured home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs for them. Instead, they finished 0-6 and earned the No. 2 seed in the Central Division. Instead of playing the No. 8 seed Dallas, which barely scraped its way into the playoffs, going 3-4 down the stretch, the Blues will face the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Nice consolation prize.

In three of those six losses, the Blues were shut out. In the other three, they scored five goals. They will enter the playoffs having gone their past 141 minutes 17 seconds without scoring.

Part of the reason for the dry spell is a rash of injuries. The list of Blues who did not play on Sunday in the season finale because of injury includes most of their best players: David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Sobotka, Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrik Berglund, Barret Jackman and Brenden Morrow. For those keeping score at home, that is six players who competed at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that all but Morrow, Tarasenko and Berglund will be ready for the first game of the playoffs.

That could be an optimistic outlook, too. It’s unknown how much the others who do play will be limited by their injuries. Against the Blackhawks (who have their own share of injuries), depth is key, as Chicago has perhaps the best in the league.

"Obviously the little streak at the end isn’t the way we wanted it to (end)," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester told the Post-Dispatch. "But I think (the team needs) just a couple of days — get away, forget about hockey for a little bit — and then come back refreshed."

If the Blues can pull it off, it will be quite a turnaround.

These two rivals have not faced each other in the playoffs since 1997 when Eric Lindros played for Philadelphia and Brian Leetch for the Rangers (Leetch now works in the league’s Office of Player Safety where he will help Stephane Quintal, who has taken over with Brendan Shanahan moving to Toronto’s front office). In the ’80s and ’90s, this was one of the league’s better rivalries, playoffs or otherwise. It will be renewed with two new coaches at the helm.

The Rangers’ Alain Vigneault, in his first season in New York, and the Flyers’ Craig Berube, who took over in midseason after Peter Laviolette was fired, offer interesting contrasts. Berube amassed 3,149 penalty minutes in the NHL. Vigneault, who only played 42 NHL games, has shown he can coach different styles — a defensive one in New York and an offensive one in Vancouver. Vigneault gets the edge in experience but, as the cliché goes, players have to play. This should be an emotional and exciting series, one of the best of the first round.

In a 3-2 win on Sunday over Boston in what is likely the last game of his career in a Devils uniform, the 16 saves to pick up his 19th win. The win also represented the 688th of the 41-year-old goalie’s career, the most in league history and all with the Devils. Brodeur most likely will sign elsewhere next season if he does not retire, as he posted a .901 save percentage in 39 games. That, and losing 13 shootouts, likely cost the Devils a playoff berth.