Welcome To The New NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs

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The NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs are always an exercise in unpredictability. Presidents' Trophy winners routinely come up short of hoisting the best trophy in sports while even 8 seeds can win it all. The NBA playoffs this is not.

But this season, with the NHL's realignment, we are in for a brand-new treat when the Stanley Cup playoffs kick off tomorrow with a triple-header. Hated, long-time rivals will square off in the first round and top seeds will face red-hot and battle-tested foes. Frankly, I couldn't be more excited.

Let's take a look at this new-look playoff format, match-up by match-up.

Western Conference

1. Colorado Avalanche vs. 4. Minnesota Wild
For most of the season, the Avalanche looked up at the St. Louis Blues in the Central Division. That all changed down the stretch, as Colorado took advantage of the Blues' late-season swoon. How did Colorado do it? It certainly wasn't on the strength of one or two superstars like a lot of the playoff teams. In fact, the Avalanche have just one player in the top 30 in scoring, that being Olympian Matt Duchene.

It's Colorado's remarkable depth — with four players with at least 60 points and five topping 20 goals — that got the Avalanche the division title. This team is fourth in the NHL in goals per game and plays sound enough defense to be among the best in the league.

The Wild, on the other hand, are a different animal entirely. For starters, goal-scoring is not exactly the team's forte, sitting at 24th in the NHL in goals per game. Instead, it's defense that is Minnesota's calling card, led by all-world defenseman Ryan Suter.

However, things aren't that simple with the Wild. This isn't just a good defensive team with good goaltending — it's a good defensive team despite its revolving door in net. Josh Harding's health issues are well-documented, and while the netminder was brilliant early on, his multiple sclerosis has prevented him from playing since December. Then Niklas Backstrom suffered a season-ending injury after playing some shaky hockey. And while Darcy Kuemper has performed admirably in 26 games, the Wild ultimately landed on the experience that is Ilya Bryzgalov.

All Bryz has done since he's been in Minnesota is turn into one of the hottest goaltenders on the planet, helping lead the Wild to the postseason.

This should be beyond interesting, seeing strength vs. strength — the offense of the Avalanche vs. the defense of Minnesota. And if that wasn't enough reason to tune in, the Bryzgalov playoff experience — which has not been so good in his career — should provide some fun.

2. St. Louis Blues vs. 3. Chicago Blackhawks
The Blues looked to be in the driver's seat for the top seed in the Central and even a threat for the Presidents' Trophy, especially after trading for Ryan Miller, but then things fell apart. Injuries and unsteady play have put them face-to-face with the defending Stanley Cup champs. The Blues are reeling, which is not where you want to be against the champs, but they do have reinforcements on the way. They'll desperately need Ryan Miller to bounce back from an underwhelming performance since heading to the home of the Gateway Arch.

Meanwhile, the Blackhawks are limping into the postseason as well. This isn't the same squad that went streaking a year ago. However, they are still champs, the team with Kane and Toews and Sharp and Keith and Seabrook. You can never count them out.

And while both teams have faded a bit down the stretch, this is another case of strength on strength. Chicago finished second in the NHL in goals per game, while Blues were second in goals against. Add in a rivalry, and you have yourself the makings of a great series.

1. Anaheim Ducks vs. 4. Dallas Stars
Truth be told, this looks to be the most uneven match-up of the entire first round. That may or may not be fair to the Dallas Stars, but top to bottom, the Ducks have been better pretty much all around. Led by Ryan Getzlaf's MVP-worthy season (if it weren't for Sidney Crosby), the Ducks finished with the most points in the West behind an NHL-leading 3.21 goals per game while also sitting at ninth in goals against.

And while this may look like a mismatch on paper, it's important to note that the Ducks are top-heavy. Beyond Getzlaf and fellow star Corey Perry, Anaheim does not have many point producers, putting the onus on the stars to carry the squad.

That could play into the hands of Dallas, who has its own lethal one-two punch in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Add to that the strong play of Kari Lehtonen in net, and we could be in for a surprisingly tight series.

2. San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
Here we have yet another face-off between offense and defense. The Sharks, the perennial bride's maid of the West, are among the best scoring teams in the NHL, led by the three-headed monster of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, all in the top 16 in scoring. Here's the thing — it's not just San Jose's offense that's impressive. The Sharks are also fifth in the NHL in goals against average, with Antti Niemi playing the type of hockey that won him a Cup in Chicago. The Sharks are about as complete a team as there is out West.

Of course, you have to score to win, and no team in hockey is better at stifling the opposition than the Kings. LA surrenders barely over two goals a game thanks in large part to the remarkable goaltending of Jonathan Quick and stout defense of Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, Alec Martinez, Willie Mitchell, et al. On top of that, the team is full of two-way players, none better than Anze Kopitar, the team's leading point producer and best defensive forward.

The Kings have enough scoring with Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Justin Williams, not to mention playoff veterans Dustin Brown and Mike Richards, to beat anyone with that defense and Quick in net. This should be a dandy.

patrice bergeron

Eastern Conference

1. Boston Bruins vs. 4. Detroit Red Wings
Two Original 6 teams. Two playoff regulars. And history for days. This is a match-up for the hockey purists for sure. And it's got to be slightly annoying to the Bruins to have to face Detroit in the first round.

The Bruins have been the best team in league, securing the Presidents' Trophy, and look destined to be the last ones standing. They finished second in the NHL in goals against average and third in goals scored, not to mention third in power play percentage and eighth in the penalty kill. Tuukka Rask is most likely going to win the Vezina Trophy. Patrice Bergeron is the most underrated superstar in the league. Zdeno Chara can win the Norris every year.

The Bruins are simply loaded. Take a look at the +/- stats. The top three are all Bruins — David Krejci, Bergeron and Brad Marchand. And it doesn't stop there. Jarome Iginla is fifth, Jonny Boychuk 10th and Milan Lucic 11th. The numbers are just stupid. The Bruins are stacked, and they are the favorite to win it all.

Their reward for all that? The Detroit Red Wings. Yes, the same Detroit Red Wings that took the Blackhawks to the limit last year.

Year one in the Eastern Conference has been a bit of a struggle, with injuries derailing the offense and the defense playing only so-so. But now Detroit is getting healthy heading into the postseason, and the reinforcements of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk helped keep Detroit's playoff streak alive. With the elder statesmen back and joined by Daniel Alfredsson, in addition to the steady physicality of Niklas Kronwall and pedigree of Jimmy Howard, the Red Wings are no pushover for Boston.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. 3. Montreal Canadiens
Oddly enough, this series between two 100-point teams is the least enticing match-up to me. That doesn't mean it's any less intriguing than the rest. It just means I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to either Montreal or Tampa Bay this year.

Ryan Callahan gives the Lightning a different dynamic following the trade demanded by Martin St. Louis, and Ondrej Palat and Valtteri Fippula have put together fine seasons. With Steven Stamkos back and Victor Hedman leading the defense, the Lightning are a nice team that does many things well. However, this team has gotten to where it's at behind goalie Ben Bishop, and with Bishop's availability uncertain following an injury last week, Tampa's playoff fortunes are up in the air.

As for Montreal, we all know the Canadiens are secure in net with the talented Carey Price. However, beyond Price and the defense, the Canadiens are scarce in the scoring department as well. They'll need Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban to build on their fine offensive seasons to get some goals.

That job could be easier with Bishop's health in question, which makes this series anyone's guess.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 4. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Penguins have been one of the highest-scoring teams all season, and Sidney Crosby, with his league-leading 104 points (and league-leading 68 assists), is pretty much a lock for the Hart Trophy. But with Evgeni Malkin's return not set in stone following a foot injury that's kept him out, the Pens faltered a bit down the stretch.

Still, this team is loaded. Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen all put up at least 57 points, with all five topping 20 goals.

And defensively, the Pens have been stout all season. Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen lead the way, and Marc-Andre Fleury has had a fine bouneback season with Tomas Vokoun sidelined all regular season.

Still, the injuries leave the Pens vulnerable, and the Blue Jackets went 6-3-1 down the stretch to earn one of the two wild card spots in the East.

James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson have provided steadiness on the blue line, and last year's Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky has been brilliant once again in net. Columbus will need all the offense Ryan Johansen, Artem Anisimov and Cam Atkinson can muster, but with Bob in net they may be able to give Pittsburgh a scare. Maybe. Probably not.

2. New York Rangers vs. 3. Philadelphia Flyers
This is what playoff hockey should be — two heated rivals, teams and fan bases that despise one another, battling right out of the gate. Miraculously, this is the first time the two will meet in postseason play since 1997, when the Flyers topped the Rangers in five games en route to becoming Eastern Conference champs behind Hart Trophy winner Eric Lindros.

Now we get to see the Blue Shirts vs. the Orange and Black once more, and it's bound to be a nasty series.

The Rangers traded their captain for Tampa Bay's captain so Martin St. Louis could provide some much-needed scoring punch. It hasn't turned out that way, as Marty has struggled and the Rangers sit at the bottom half of the NHL in goals. Rick Nash and Brad Richards are the only 20-goal scores for the Rangers — St. Louis has 30, but just one for New York.

However, the Rangers once again have one of the best defenses in the NHL. Henrik Lundqvist is a brick wall in net, and his 2.36 goals against average and .920 save percentage are among the best in the business. And helping him out is a a corps of defensemen no other team has. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are pretty much the cream of the crop at the position, while Marc Staal, Anton Stralman and company provide depth few teams have. That's why New York is fourth in goals against average in the NHL.

And they're going to need every bit of defense they can muster against their hated rivals from Philadelphia. The Flyers, after a slow start that got their coach fired — sound familiar? — have been one of the best teams in hockey the second half of the season, particularly after the first few weeks under new coach Craig Berube's guidance.

The Flyers finished eighth in the NHL in goals per game, and since late December they've scored in bunches. They have more 20-goal scorers than any team in hockey — Wayne Simmonds, Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Matt Read, Scott Hartnell, Brayden Schenn and Vinny Lecavalier — and no player has been better than Claude Giroux in that time.

After a rough start that led to Giroux being left off of Team Canada, the Philadelphia captain really turned it on, finishing third in NHL in scoring behind only Crosby and Getzlaf with his 86 points. Talk about a turnaround.

The Flyers are also in the top 10 in power play percentage and the penalty kill, meaning staying out of the penalty box should be priority number one for New York.

However, it's always the defense and goaltending in question in Philadelphia, and this season is no different. While Steve Mason has been mostly steady in net, he's now nicked up and may not play Thursday. That's why they went out and got Ray Emery, who won a Cup last year as the backup in Chicago.

Of course, no matter who is in net, the Flyers' defense has to be better than it was most of the season. Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn have been strong all season, as has offseason addition Mark Streit, but Nicklas Grossmann, Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson have all been up and down. That's why Philadelphia brought in Andrew MacDonald at the trade deadline, and it's really helped solidify the blue line. Grossmann and Schenn have played markedly better with MacDonald around, and the former Islanders' d-man has been able to take minutes off the plate of the aging Timonen.

Still, this will come down to whether or not Philadelphia's dynamic offense can beat Lundqvist and outduel New York's incredible defense.

Add in the hatred between the teams and the evenness in the talent department, and this very well may be the most entertaining series of the bunch.

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