NHL playoffs 2015: What to watch for in 1st round – Sports Out West
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NHL playoffs 2015: What to watch for in 1st round

The Stanley Cup playoffs start on Wednesday, and here’s what to watch for in the first round match-ups.

Eastern Conference

Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senator

The Senators are the feel-good story of the playoffs, rallying from 14 points outside a playoff position on February 10 to clenching a spot in the post-season with a victory Sunday in Philadelphia. They road the shoulders of the “hamburglar,” goaltender Andrew Hammond, who went a staggering 20-1-2 in 24 games for the Sens, with a save percentage of .941 and a goals against average of 1.79. But, the fairy tale will end against the Canadiens, who can throw the likely Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price in net, and will pepper Hammond with fast transition play. The best goalie in hockey beats the hottest goalie in hockey.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings

Detroit managed to squeeze into the playoffs for the 24th consecutive season, a streak that began in the 1990-91 season, or two years before the Lightning entered the NHL. But, the Red Wings limped in going just 7-10-3 to close the year, and will be an underdog to the high-octane Lightning, who lead the NHL in goals per game at 3.16. Look for the Lightning’s speed of play to be the difference over the length of the series.

New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins were horrible the last week of the season, but they boast Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, which scares any opposing coach – they can win games by outscoring the opposition. However, the Pens are going to need to play defense to go far in the playoffs, and onus falls on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The Rangers are the healthier team, and will squeak out the series win if the penalty kill does its job.

Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders

This is the marquee matchup in the first round, and if you like fast, wide-open hockey, make certain you watch every game. The Caps will load up with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Isles counter with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. The Isles blew opportunities over the weekend to earn the home ice advantage in this series, and it will come back to haunt them when they lose in seven fun-to-watch games.

Western Conference

St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild

The Blues have gotten healthy at just the right time, and the team doesn’t have many, if any, holes. But, they’ll have to ride Brian Elliot in the goal, and he’s had a checkered past in the post-season (although he’s trended in the right direction). The Wild have been a different – and much better – team since acquiring Devan Dubnyk in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes to steady the goaltending. But, if the goaltenders hold their own, the Blues possess the puck better, and playing downhill will lead to more chances, more goals, and more victories.

Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Nashville was great for most of the year, but struggled a bit down the stretch. The Blackhawks have a load of playoff-tested post-season experience. Plus, the ‘hawks will get back Patrick Kane for the playoff opener. Just seven weeks removed from surgery on his collarbone, if Kane is up to the task physically, the Blackhawks will be the team to beat in this matchup.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets

The Jets are the trendy pick by analysts and pundits to pull off a first round upset, and their building will be raucous when they get there for games 3 and 4. However, the Ducks won the regular season series 3-0, although one game was won in overtime and another in the shootout. The Jets have the magic, emotion and momentum, but the Ducks can roll four lines and should win out in the long run if they can win the first two games at home.

Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames

Western Canada finally gets a playoff series, and this one will be a super one to watch, between two closely matched Pacific Division rivals. “Johnny Hockey” Gaudreau broke out in this, his rookie season, and finished with 24 goals and 64 points, good for second on the team. For the Canucks, this might be the last best chance for the Sedin brothers (Daniel and Henrik), who lead the squad with 76 and 73 points respectively. Both teams are better offensively than defensively, so the team that kills penalties best – Vancouver, 2nd best in the league in the regular season at 85.7 percent – wins.

Logo Credit: Courtesy of NHL

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Ray Hartjen

A Public Relations pro by day, by night @RayHartjen follows parallel - yet somehow still often conflicting - paths searching for hair metal guitar legend status, a career as a journeyman 4th line center in the NHL, and the treasured laminates to be a hanger-on in the circus that is Formula 1.
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