The best part of the hockey season is here. The Stanley Cup playoffs finally begin tonight, and it should be quite the tournament.
After a long regular season and the Olympic break, 16 teams are left to compete for the greatest trophy in all of sports. In the East, Boston takes on Detroit, Tampa Bay faces Montreal, Pittsburgh battles Columbus, and the New York Rangers meet Philadelphia. Out West, Colorado is pitted against Minnesota, St. Louis dukes it out with Chicago, Anaheim gets Dallas, and San Jose draws Los Angeles.
There are three games on the calendar tonight: Tampa Bay/Montreal, Pittsburgh/Columbus, and Anaheim/Dallas. After that, there are games pretty much every night until the end of the opening round. Get ready for the postseason with our preview and predictions for each of the first round match ups!
Boston Bruins (1) vs. Detroit Red Wings (4)
The Bruins enter the playoffs with the best record in hockey. They have arguably the best goalie in hockey in Tuukka Rask. They went 17-3-5 to end the season, including ripping off a 12-game win streak. And they're the defending Eastern Conference champions. The Red Wings, meanwhile, are an aging team that limped through the season. And they squeaked in to their 23rd straight postseason despite being without captain Henrik Zetterberg since the Olympic break.
This should be a slam dunk for Boston, right? Not so fast. The Bruins and Wings played four times this season, and after winning the first game Boston dropped the next three. All of have been close, each game decided by one goal (except for Detroit's 6-1 win on November 27), and that should carry over into the playoffs. The Bruins will come at the Wings hard — this is a team built for the postseason — but for whatever reason they just don't match up well against Detroit. And if Zetterberg is able to rejoin the lineup, the Wings will get a huge emotional boost just when they need it the most.
The safe bet is picking the Bruins to win this series on their way to the Finals. But there's a smell of upset in the air.
Prediction: My head says Bruins in 7, but my gut says Red Wings in 7
Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. Montreal Canadiens (3)
The Lightning and Canadiens were locked into a battle with the Bruins for most of the season for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. But then Boston pulled away, leaving the Bolts and Habs to duke it out. In the end, Tampa Bay finished the season with 101 points to Montreal's 100. But that point means home ice advantage for the Lightning — and that's going to be crucial in this series.
These teams will play each other hard. The Lightning have lost starting goalie Ben Bishop for an unspecified amount of time, while the Canadiens are hitting their stride at exactly the right moment. The Lightning own a 3-0-1 season series lead over the Habs, so they know how to defeat their division rivals. But this series will come down to one player: Steven Stamkos. If Tampa Bay's new captain starts scoring, this series will be over before it started. And even if he's only average, there's enough talent on the squad to power the Lightning over the Canadiens.
Prediction: Lightning in 6
Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (4)
The Metropolitan Division was crummy all season long, and the Penguins dominated it from the start. Even when they hit a post-Olympics skid, the Pens' lead in the division was never in doubt. Pittsburgh finished the season 13 points ahead of the second-place Rangers, but the gap is wider than that. With scoring champ Sidney Crosby and a resurgent Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens will be tough to beat this postseason.
If they stay healthy, that is. Pittsburgh has been racked with injuries all season long, including to the team's other big star, Evgeni Malkin. Malkin should be back for the team's opening round series against Columbus — a team Pittsburgh dominated this year, winning all five contests — and that will be a big plus. But the Blue Jackets have an opening: Pittsburgh ended its season with a wimper, going 5-3-2 in its last 10, with the last four going to overtime or shootouts. (Columbus did a bit better, going 6-3-1 in its last 10 games.) And the Blue Jackets have emotion behind them — this is their first postseason since the 2008-09 season. Still, the Jackets won't have enough to counter with Pittsburgh will throw at them. This should be a short series.
Prediction: Penguins in 5
New York Rangers (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (3)
This could be one of the most interesting series in the opening round. It will be a slugfest, for sure. But it's one to watch because both teams scratched their way out of huge early-season holes to earn a sport in the postseason. The Flyers endured their worst opening to a season ever, while the Rangers struggled to find an identity through most of the pre-Olympic break play. And yet, here they are, with a shot at the Cup.
But these are teams going in opposite directions. The Flyers went 9-4-2 in their first 15 games after the Olympics, but then posted a 2-3-2 record to close out the season. The Rangers, meanwhile, are peaking at the tight time. Despite swapping captains with the Lightning at the trade deadline, New York has found its stride, going 10-3-2 in its last 15 games. The Flyers play rough, and the Rangers are settling into a more finesse team. But the Blue Shirts know how to play gritty and should be able to handle what the Flyers throw at them — be it pucks or fists. The teams split their regular season series 2-2-0, but in this round the Rangers will get the better of their divisional foe.
Prediction: Rangers in 6
Colorado Avalanche (1) vs. Minnesota Wild (4)
This has been a wild season for the Avalanche. After finishing near the bottom of the league standings in 2012-13, Colorado got the first pick in the draft (future superstar Nathan MacKinnon) and hired legendary goalie Patrick Roy as its new coach. The results have been astounding. The Avs are a young team, but they've been at or near the top of the Central Division all season. And even when it looked like they were sliding into a more reasonable second- or third-place finish, they rebounded with grit and maturity and capitalized on the injuries to the Blues and Blackhawks to finish at the top of the division.
Colorado is as complete a team as you'll find in the West — the conference so stacked with talent that it will likely produce this year's Cup winner. The Avs have scoring, goaltending, and blue-line toughness. They dominated the Wild in the regular season, 4-0-1, and that should continue in their opening round series. The Wild had a solid season, but the Avalanche is just a scary juggernaut.
Prediction: Avalanche in 5
St. Louis Blues (2) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (3)
This has the potential to be the beat opening round series in this year's postseason. The Hawks are looking for back-to-back titles. The Blues were early season favorites to win the Cup, and they've played like it all season. But both teams are dealing with key players coming back from injuries — Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago, David Backes and TJ Oshie in St. Louis — and how they hold up in what will be a really, really tough series will determine who makes it into the second round.
The Blues won the season series, 3-2-0, but the games were closer than that. These two teams know each other well, and that will make for a fun — and long — series. But in the end, home ice will be the determining factor. And St. Louis has it. Expect this one to go the distance, and for the Blues to put an early end to the Hawks' title defense.
Prediction: Blues in 7
Anaheim Ducks (1) vs. Dallas Stars (4)
The Ducks were the best team in the NHL for most of the season. They finished one point behind the Bruins for the best record in hockey, but that doesn't diminish how good this team is, especially offensively thanks to captain Ryan Getzlaf and winger Corey Perry. Plus, this Teemu Sellane's last run at a Cup, so expect him to give the Ducks an emotional boost.
The Stars were the last team in to the postseason, and they had a solid season. Dallas even won the regular season series with Anaheim, 2-1-0. But the Stars are still a year or two away from being a legitimate playoff threat. They'll give the Ducks all they can, but in the end it won't matter. Anaheim should bounce them out of the tournament fairly quickly.
Prediction: Ducks in 5
San Jose Sharks (2) vs. Los Angeles Kings (3)
The Sharks have been here before: Great regular season, high playoff seeding, huge expectations heading into the postseason. And then it all evaporates. San Jose had a great year in 2013-14. Joe Pavelski was top-three in goals (41), and goalie Antti Niemi's 39 wins is second only to the Avalanche's Semyon Varlamov.
None of that will mean anything, though, if they can't get past the Kings. LA has had an up-and-down season, and for a minute looked like they might not make the postseason. But goalie Jonathan Quick — who himself has had an inconsistent season, thanks mostly to be injured a good part of it — keeps the Kings a legit threat. LA won the regular season battle with the Sharks, 3-1-1, but the playoffs are a different animal. Both teams are limping into the postseason, and this will be a tough series, but the Sharks should get the better of the Kings.
Prediction: Sharks in 7
What team do you think will win the Stanley Cup? Let us know in the comments section below!
Photos: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images (Toews), Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images (Bruins/Red Wings), Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images (Lightning/Canadiens), Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo (Penguins/Blue Jackets), Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images (Rangers/Flyers, Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images (Avalanche/Wild; Blues/Blackhawks), Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images (Ducks/Stars), Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images (Sharks/Kings)