Sports Out West

NHL playoffs 2014 preview: Stanley Cup roundtable and predictions

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Welcome to the greatest postseason in all of sports. The Stanley Cup Playoffs is the most exciting, nail biting, jaw-dropping event one could watch. Whether it be the incumbent Chicago Blackhawks facing off against the St. Louis Blues or the gritty Philadelphia Flyers taking on a hated rival in the New York Rangers or maybe even the rematch in the San Jose Sharks against the Los Angeles Kings, every hockey fan has something thrilling to watch. 

With all of these great series to take in the Sports Out West staff got together to discuss several aspects of the NHL postseason.

From the possible upsets to the most exciting first round series to watch, we’ve got you covered:

Which team has the momentum going in?

Nadia Archuleta: The Anaheim Ducks won four going in — they’ll be looking to ride that momentum. The Tampa Bay Lightning had the greatest momentum, winning four in a row to leapfrog Montreal at the last minute.

While the Colorado Avalanche lost the last two, they’ve had the greatest momentum since the Olympic break, going from fighting for home ice advantage against the Chicago Blackhawks to leapfrogging the St. Louis Blues on the last day of the regular season for the Central Division title. As to who will make the most of their momentum in the first round of the playoffs, Tampa Bay and Colorado.

Matt Fitzgerald: The Colorado Avalanche bring the best momentum heading into the playoffs after a strong close to the season. They definitely came out of nowhere to claim the second highest points total in the Western Conference. Their first round series draw against the Minnesota Wild gives them the perfect opportunity to build more momentum into the later rounds of the tournament.

Ray Hartjen: The Colorado Avalanche played extremely well after the Olympics, and are surely the surprise team of the year. They’re young, but coach Patrick Roy has them doing all the right things on the ice. They draw the Minnesota Wild in the first round, so they have an opportunity to build upon their momentum with some early round success. 

Dave Tobener: The Anaheim Ducks. They’re the best team in the west and played like it down the stretch, distancing themselves from San Jose and securing the number one seed. Anaheim won seven of their last ten, including four straight to end the season, and that momentum should carry over into the playoffs. They look like the most dangerous team in the Western Conference and are capable of beating anyone.

Maxim Garshman: Anaheim definitely has the most momentum heading into the playoffs. The Ducks have not only won four straight, but three out of those four opponents (San Jose, Los Angeles, and Colorado) were playoff teams. The Pacific Division winners also won two games in dominating fashion and a couple nail bitters. All of these things are what a team wants heading into the postseason.  

Which team is your favorite to win it all?

Nadia: Which team is my favorite to win it all? The Colorado Avalanche, of course! Who do I think will win it all? The Boston Bruins. They are a team with a strong — if boring — defensive system. They minimize scoring chances and maximize on their own chances.

bruinsgoaltender

Photo Credit: Joe Makarski / Bruins Daily

They are not fronted by superstars but made up of four lines of grinders, some of whom just happen to be more talented than others. As such, injuries don’t impact them as much since the other grinders just step up. They’re like a machine when they’re playing their game.

Matt: The Colorado Avalanche are my pick to win the Stanley Cup as well. The momentum that they have moving into the tournament and what they should get from a relatively easy matchup against the Wild gives them a perfect opportunity. If they can make short work of the Wild and show that they can compete on the big stage, they should have little issue making it all the way.

Ray: The Boston Bruins have the horses who have been there, done that, winning the Cup three seasons ago and playing in the Finals last year.  Tuukka Rask has developed into one of the best goaltenders in the world, and the Bruins are among the best both five-on-five and on special teams. It’s going to take a team’s absolute best to beat them.

Dave: I know I just finished singing Anaheim’s praises, but my favorite to win it all is the Pittsburgh Penguins. A lot of prognosticators seem to be overlooking Pittsburgh this year, which is understandable given their recent playoff failures. But the Penguins are still a loaded team and are getting healthy at the right time.

Evgeni Malkin is back from injury, and their defense is finally at full strength with both Kris Letang and Paul Martin healed up and back to playing. Marc-Andre Fleury remains a question in net, but he just finished arguably his most impressive regular season as a pro and has something to prove. The year nobody seems to be picking the Penguins is the year I’m going with them. Sidney Crosby lifts his second Stanley Cup.

Maxim: The Boston Bruins are my favorite to win it all. They have been by far the most consistent team all season. Their goalie Tuukka Rask has made Boston fans forget about that guy named Tim Thomas and might win the Vezina trophy this year.The Bruins also have four lines that are solid. In fact, Boston has nine players with 40 plus points this season. Their wide range of offensive production and gritty defense are more than enough to make them the favorite. 

Which low seed (6-8) has the best chance to make it to the Finals?

Nadia: The Los Angeles Kings have the best chance of making it to the Finals. They’re seeded so low, at sixth, only because they play in the tight Western Conference — in the Eastern Conference they’d be seeded higher. They are a team who likes to take possession of the puck and keep it — and they’re good at that game. If any low-seeded team can make it to the Finals, it’s the Kings.

Matt: The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are the two dark horses coming into the tournament. They account for three of the previous four champions, including the last two, and they should be able to cause problems for any team moving forward. Both teams know what it takes to win the it all and should bring that ability and experience into the tournament and show why they are better than their seeds give them credit for.

Ray: The Columbus Blue Jackets are built for the playoffs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they give Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins fits. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was a Vezina finalist last year, and he might be one this year with his .923 Save Percentage.

Of course, he’s going to need to be at the top of his game against the likes of Crosby and  Malkin. The Blue Jackets will play a heavy game and will not be out-worked, and if they can squeeze a few pucks past Fleury early, the pressure will be on.

Dave: Watch out for the Los Angeles Kings. If they can get past the San Jose Sharks in the first round- and that’s a big if- the Kings are the kind of team that can power through the rest of the conference on their way to another Stanley Cup Final appearance. If Jonathan Quick gets hot, it’s easy to see the Kings riding him all the way. He’s that good, and the team around him isn’t too shabby either.

Sharks scrum with Kings

Photo Credit: Gary A.Vasquez–USA TODAY Sports

Max: The Los Angeles Kings have the best chance. The Kings won it in 2012 and made it to the Western Conference Final in 2013. They have proven that they can beat San Jose taking the season series 3-1-1 and won their second round matchup in 2013 with the Sharks in seven games.

This team is not explosive offensively, but they are arguably one of the best defensive teams. It also doesn’t hurt to have a Conn Smythe winner, Jonathan Quick, in net.

Which team is in the biggest danger of being swept? 

Nadia: If Marc-Andre Fleury is on his game along with Sid Crosby and his court, the Columbus Blue Jackets might just get swept. If the Penguins are playing their brand of playoff hockey… the Blue Jackets just don’t have the offensive or defensive power to match them.

Matt: The Dallas Stars are the team that need to be most worried about being swept out of the first round of the tournament. The Ducks come into the tournament off of a strong season and should have very little issue moving through their first series against a weaker Stars team. Dallas will have to step up greatly if they want their playoff run to last longer a few games.

Ray: How Detroit won its season series with Boston 3-1 is beyond me, particularly with the injuries they’ve battled all year. To avoid being swept, they’ll need goaltender Jimmy Howard to stand on his head, and Pavel Datsyuk and Daniel Alfredsson will need to be the best players on the ice. The thing is, they won’t be, not with Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and crew. Detroit goes home early, maybe in just four.

Dave: It’s a toss-up between the Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars, and Columbus Blue Jackets. They may manage to win a game or two in their respective series, but all of them look overmatched in their first round matchups. If I have to choose one, I’ll say the Ducks sweep the Stars right out of the playoffs.

Maxim: This is a tough question to answer considering that sweeps are not too often seen in the playoffs. However, if I had to pick I would choose the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets are facing the Pittsburgh Penguins who took the season series 5-0-0. Not to mention the Penguins have fantastic leadership and experience in Crosby and Malkin. It will be hard for Columbus to get past the battle-tested Penguins. 

Which first-round series are you most looking forward to?

Nadia: I’m looking forward to the Colorado Avalanche-Minnesota Wild series. Even if I weren’t an Avalanche fan I’d be looking forward to this series because the Avalanche came from dead-last in the conference to winning the Central Division. They spent the majority of the season thinking they’d be facing the reigning Stanley Cup champs as an underdog, now they’re facing the wildcard underdogs.

There are only two aspects of offense that will make this series less-than-exciting: Minnesota likes to play stingy hockey, and the Avalanche are without phenom scorer Matt Duchene. (Who, despite missing the last two weeks of the regular season, still finished as the leading scorer on the team.) Those two facts might make for a gummy neutral zone, but the match-up is still an intriguing one

Matt:  The Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks series stands to be one of the best first-round series in recent memory. Both teams coming in with experience against each other and they also have a decent amount of dislike for each other. This series also has great potential to go six or seven games as both teams know what to expect from the other. It truly could come down to home ice advantage or which away team manages to snag a game from their opponent.

Ray: The two best first-round match ups are out west. St. Louis slumped at the end of the season, and as their punishment, they draw the defending Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, in what is certain to be a great series. Likewise, the Sharks and Kings face off for their third playoff series in four years, with each team having won once previously.

It’s a good news, bad news scenario.  The bad news is that two legitimate Cup contenders will be eliminated in the first round. The good news is that we get to watch two intense playoff matchups from the drop of the first puck.

Dave: Kings-Sharks is going to be an amazing series to watch. Both teams are evenly matched, and both teams have real shots at winning the Stanley Cup. It’s a shame one of them has to go out in the first round.

Maxim: The first-round series I am most looking forward is without a doubt San Jose Sharks-Los Angeles Kings. This may be the best series you see the entire playoffs. You have the classic NorCal-SoCal rivalry and two teams live up to it. These two teams despise one another. The last time these teams played the Sharks set a new franchise record for checks.

You have the former champion Kings going against the only California team not to win Lord Stanley’s Cup. Sit back and grab some popcorn. This series will not disappoint. 

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Maxim Garshman

Maxim Garshman is a Bay Area native who now calls San Diego home. He has an expert voice on all things NHL and NFL, and currently works as the Chargers beat writer for Sports Out West.