We'll start with a look at the first-round matchups, including my predictions, which, as is the case with most predictions (particularly those involving wild playoff hockey), are almost certain to be wrong. Because I'm sensitive to complaints that THE MEDIA IS SO EAST COAST BIASED!!!!! I'm starting this one off with the Western Conference just for you.
We've got much ground to cover here, so like the best playoff performers I'll do away with the niceties and just plow into it all. And, as Don Cherry might say with a big thumbs-up: LET'S GO!
What's the story here? For the second straight year, the Canucks have won the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top team in overall points. And they returned the vast majority of a squad that last year came within a game of the Stanley Cup. (The major exception, at this very moment, is Daniel Sedin, who suffered a concussion last month and is not expected to return for Game 1.)
The Los Angeles Kings, meanwhile, made a number of offseason changes — including one that brought in former Flyers captain Mike Richards — and had been predicted to come out as one of the top teams in the West. Instead, despite unreal goaltending all season from Jonathan Quick (he led the NHL in shutouts with 10, was second in goals-against at 1.95, and is quite possibly more deserving than the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist of the Vezina Trophy), the Kings struggled to establish a presence this season — both on the scoreboard and against the boards.
The big questions: Will Jeff Carter, who joined the Kings at the trade deadline and helped them get some pucks in the net before going down with an injury, continue to provide a spark? He'll be back for Game 1. (Most Philadelphia Flyers fans would say no.) Will Jonathan Quick be able to maintain his outstanding pace? Which L.A. team will show up: the one that fails to use its hefty size and can't bury the biscuit, or the one that looked significantly better (and played bigger) after the trade deadline? Will the Canucks' increased focus on defensive size and strength pay off and help them get over the hump this season? Can Ryan Kesler, who was injured for much of last year's playoffs, provide the impactful two-way play Vancouver needs? Who will be in net for the Canucks a few weeks from today?
Any bad blood? It's a growing but as-yet relatively respectful rivalry: This will be the second time in three years that the teams have met in the first round. (In 2010, the Canucks won in six.) Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa said that the Kings are "probably one of the teams we've had the most scrums with throughout the season." Some of those came in this season's New Year's Eve game, which had its share of penalty minutes assessed.
Fun fact: Roberto Luongo's suspected undercover Twitter account continues to win the Internet. Speaking of Vancouver goalies: Cory Schneider does not much enjoy being called "Ginger Jesus," thankyouverymuch.
So what'll it be? The Canucks are a methodically run team who can score goals from the top of the lineup to the bottom. And after last season, they'll be eager to avoid a long early round, and they're good enough to dictate that it won't be. Unless the Kings can take Game 1 on the road, Canucks in five.
Representative song: Queen, "Under Pressure." Whether fair or not,1 Roberto Luongo enters this postseason on a hotter seat than ever before. It's a testament to the Canucks' skill, drive, and focus that the team has withstood the Luongo-or-Schneider!!!!!! shorelines that have bubbled under the surface since last season. A lesser team (and lesser goalies) probably would not have been able to keep the lid on that particular cauldron. Still, perhaps the best shot the Kings have of pulling off an upset in this series is to steal Game 1 in Vancouver and let the notoriously, um, passionate Canucks media and fans blow their tops and take care of the rest.
What's the story here? After being the first team (of many) to fire a coach this season, the St. Louis Blues took off under Ken Hitchcock and never looked back. Here are two things that say it all about this balanced, everyone-helps-out Blues team: Its tied-for-leading points scorer is also its best defensive forward (David Backes), and its All-Star goaltender, who led the NHL in save percentage and was second in shutouts, Brian Elliott, isn't even the no. 1 for the playoffs. (That'll be Jaroslav Halak.)
The San Jose Sharks have made it to the Western Conference finals for two years running, but you probably wouldn't know it if you only watched them this season, when they had trouble forming any sort of identity and barely made the postseason. But everything resets now, and the Sharks, with players like Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski, are chock-full of guys who know how to win. Sophomore Logan Couture is one of the league's rising stars, and since the All-Star break he's been on a .84 point-per-game pace. (Thornton's has been a killer 1.12.) Oh, and Martin Havlat, whom the team specifically traded for this offseason in order to give them some better playoff presence, is returning from a groin injury at just the right time.
The big questions: Are the conference finals going to be as good as it ever gets for the Sharks? Can a team full of glue guys stick together? Will St. Louis's young kids rise to the playoff occasion, or get too rattled by a loss? Will Antti Niemi regain the form that brought him the 2010 Stanley Cup in Chicago, or will he be outplayed in net by the two-headed St. Louis monster of Halak and Elliott?
Any bad blood? "The Blues and Sharks have provided one of the great rivalries " Oh, wait, that's in "Super Rugby." The NHL's Blues and Sharks have been matched up in the playoffs three times before, with the two trading first-round exits in 2000 and 2001, but they haven't seen each other in the postseason since 2004, and there are very few holdovers from those days. The most hate-fueling thing to have happened between these two of late was Joe Thornton's November 2010 hit on the Blues' David Perron, which concussed the St. Louis forward and kept him out of the game for over a year. Since his return, though, he's been one of the team's best players, and there doesn't seem to be too much bad blood: "Just got a very classy text from Joe Thornton wishing me good luck for tonight!" Perron tweeted in December before his first game back. "He is a class act! Nap time and then game on!"
Fun fact: The St. Louis Blues' defense has been so good that, according to ESPN.com number-cruncher Alvin Chang, "if they win the Cup, they'll radically reshape the power meter formula going forward." I don't entirely know what that means, but it sounds serious.
So what'll it be? The Blues have beaten the Sharks four times this season, and they're defensively oriented and a disciplined team, which bodes well for the playoffs. But if the Sharks can win a few games early, the Blues might lose their cool. Unless San Jose can turn on the scoring early and often, they could find themselves hard-pressed to generate offense. This might be the end of an era for San Jose, and the start of a new one for St. Louis. Blues in six.
Representative song: Jimi Hendrix, "Are You Experienced?" Among the teams who remain, the San Jose Sharks have the second-most playoff games under their belts, trailing only the Detroit Red Wings: Fourteen players have played in 30 or more postseason games, and only one has skated in zero. (It helps that the team has advanced to the conference finals the last two years.) Compare this with the St. Louis Blues, who have the second-fewest "second season" appearances — at 486 showings, less than half of the Sharks' 1,076-game total, with a whopping 18 St. Louis skaters having seen time in 10 contests or fewer. No other team has a roster that green. But the inexperience talk could turn out to be overblown. The Blues have a Cup-winning coach in Ken Hitchcock behind the bench; a guy in net, Halak, who advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010 with Montreal; and a pair of grizzled veterans on the ice: Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott have three Cups between them.
What's the story here? Since Dave Tippett took over as head coach for the once rudderless (and still ownerless) franchise, the Phoenix Coyotes have made the playoffs three years in a row, and this year they won their division for the first time to give them the no. 3 seed. But they've been bounced in the first round twice, and as usual are playing with the specter of relocation hanging over their heads. The team has been led by old men Shane Doan and Ray Whitney — the latter of whom has been on a 1.1 point-per-game pace since the All-Star Game — and got 35 goals from Radim Vrbata, a career high. And in net, Mike Smith has been an unexpected delight: For a team that was written off once Ilya Bryzgalov departed for Philly, the Coyotes have gotten eight shutouts and a .930 save percentage from Smith.
The Blackhawks, who juuust made the postseason last year after winning the Cup in 2010, want to prove that they can get back there — and that they are not the team that went on a long slump midway through the season. They finished the year 6-1-3 in their last 10, and throughout the season they showed they can generate some pretty beautiful offense, even if Patrick Kane didn't have his best season. (He did come on much stronger at the end: Ten of his 23 goals came in the last 19 games of the season.) Duncan Keith, who was suspended five games for a hit that concussed the Canucks' Daniel Sedin, will be rested and ready to go. And the team has a roster of players, from Kane to Dave Bolland to Jonathan Toews, who have shown that they can raise their game in the postseason. (Toews hasn't played since mid-February, though.)
The big questions: When will Jonathan Toews be back? Will Mike Smith be this season's "hot goalie" and help Phoenix finally break out of the first round? When will Jonathan Toews be back? Will the Coyotes be able to ignore outside distractions about the fate of their team? (They've done a good job doing so all season long.) When will Jonathan Toews be back? Can Corey Crawford step up in net? And when will Jonathan Toews be back?
Any bad blood? You know there isn't really too much preexisting hate when Chicago bloggers are writing posts in advance of the game suggesting reasons to dislike the Coyotes. (Particularly when one of those reasons involves Jeremy Roenick, and another pokes the low-hanging fruit that is Phoenix's awful late-'90s jerseys.)
Fun fact: This is actually a tragic fact: There will be no Patrick Kane Playoff Mullet this time around :(
So what'll it be? The Blackhawks have appeared merely mortal, and as Alvin Chang points out, their goal differential per game is woefully low at .12. ("Since the lockout, no team has won the Cup with such a low" number, he said, noting that the 2009 Penguins came closest at a .3.) Toews may be a game-time decision, but his comments about lingering concussion symptoms are worrisome. This is where I'll go out on a limb to make my boldest, and definitely most idiotic, prediction: Coyotes in six.
Representative song: Taylor Swift, "You Belong to Me." I'm sure NBC would much rather see the prettier, sexier Blackhawks advance, and probably most hockey fans would too. (Patrick Kane is cheer captain and Radim Vrbata's on the bleachers.) Also, you just know that the Coyotes, who play in front of the league's weakest home crowds, want to say to the city of Glendale: "Been here all along, so why can't you see?"
What's the story here? Two of the league's most respected franchises — one thisclose to dynastic, one that wants nothing more than to get to that level — will face off in a series that could either turn out to be a changing of the guard or a validation of the Red Wings' ongoing success. The Wings have had strong goaltending from Jimmy Howard all season, and their myriad offensive weapons, from Pavel Datsyuk to Henrik Zetterberg to Johan Franzen to Valtteri Filppula, are genuinely daunting both to consider and to stop.
The Predators have grown into a model franchise, one that begins in the net with Pekka Rinne (who played 73 games this season!!) and spreads outward from there. With Shea Weber and Ryan Suter on the blue line, the Predators have the best one-two punch in the league — but they may not be able to retain both players beyond this season, giving this playoff run additional urgency. David Poile was among the most active GMs at the deadline, and the late addition of Alexander Radulov from the KHL is something the team hopes will provide an offensive spark.
The big questions: Will this be Red Wing stalwart Nicklas Lidstrom's final season, and if so, can the Wings give him a deep playoff run? Can Martin Erat continue the play that has brought him a career high in points? Will the Predators take advantage of the home ice they fought so hard for? (They'll have to: Detroit is incredibly difficult to beat at home, having gone on a 23-game home win streak this winter.) And will the Predators' negative shot differential end up spelling their demise?
Any bad blood? For years this was one of those mostly one-sided, aspirational rivalries: The Red Wings knocked Nashville out of the first round in six games in both 2004 and 2008, and Detroit has always had bigger fish to fry. (Even during that 2008 series, Predators players described their feelings toward Detroit as "a natural respect.") But as the Predators have climbed the standings in an increasingly heated Central Division over the last season-plus, the intensity has ramped up between Hockeytown and the city that Predators head coach Barry Trotz now refers to as "Hockeytown South." The teams split their season series three games apiece, with the Predators winning 4-1 on March 30 to give Trotz, and the franchise, its 500th win.
Fun fact: In the ballsiest jersey promotion since the Columbus Blue Jackets helped erase all signs of the Jeff Carter era, the Predators are offering this deal to Nashville-based Detroit expats: Turn in your old Red Wings jersey and get 50 percent off a new Nashville sweater. While this "Keep the Red Out" campaign has a heart of, er, gold — the old Wings gear will be donated by the team to a "worthy charity" up in Detroit — you have to hope they've got some good security, or at least disguises, near the merchandise booth. Most hockey fans I know would never tolerate this sort of treason.
So what'll it be? The Red Wings are practically the Red Army, from their uniforms to their unyielding discipline and winning ways. But I'm going to make a sentimental pick for a team that I'd love to see make the deep postseason run that it has so strategically been preparing for all year. Two bonkers arenas and two really good teams? Nashville in seven — unless the game goes into overtime, in which case it'll belong to the Wings.
Representative song: Melissa Etheridge, "Come to My Window." Because, as Greg Wyshynski pointed out, both teams are fighting to prop up rapidly closing windows of opportunity. For the Red Wings, the gravitational pull is the inevitable aging of a team that has the most playoff experience among all 16 postseason teams. For the Nashville Predators, it's the upcoming crossroads for the core they've assembled: top-pair defenseman Ryan Suter will become a free agent after this season, Shea Weber a restricted free agent, and who knows what kind of blood contract Alexander Radulov signed with the KHL in order to come play in the States? For years, the Predators operated under a tightwad budget. Now they're apparently able to spend. But can they go far enough into the postseason to convince their own players it's worth it?
What's the story here? The Rangers were projected to be a nice little team this year, but no one would have thought they'd be leading the Eastern Conference for nearly the entire season. Credit Henrik Lundqvist for that: Of all his great campaigns, this one has been the best. John Tortorella is a fiery, takes-no-shit coach, but he's also gotten the team to buy into his system remarkably: They throw their bodies around, blocking shots and finishing checks, and the result has been a surprisingly consistent year all around, with no major slumps.
The Senators outperformed expectations as well — by a long shot. Most preseason predictions had them finishing in the NHL basement, but instead, buoyed by a huge breakout campaign from young defenseman Erik Karlsson and sterling seasons offensively from Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek (as well as the leadership of lifer Daniel Alfredsson), the Senators find themselves in the postseason.
The big questions: Will Karlsson continue to ignite the Senators' offense the way he has all season long? Will Brad Richards, who won the Conn Smythe in 2004, provide the leadership he's being paid so dearly for, and will his chemistry with Marian Gaborik hold up? (Last season the Rangers struggled to get crucial goals, but this season their offense has been more reliable.) Could this be where Brandon Dubinsky, who has had a woeful year, finally returns to form? And will Jason Spezza, who since the All-Star break has been almost unstoppable, be stopped?
Any bad blood? A little bit. The teams don't have a playoff history, but in the team's first meeting this season, Wojtek Wolski concussed Daniel Alfredsson. This led Zenon Konopka — who threw a questionable hit of his own on Artem Anisimov in one contest — to declare himself pissed off, drawing this counter-response from John Tortorella: "I don't give a crap what Zenon said, or whatever his name is said." At any rate, Wolski — or whatever his name is — was traded away from the Rangers.
Fun fact: Don't bother following any Rangers on Twitter for at least the next couple of weeks: On Tuesday, all the Rangers that use the service2 signed off with an en masse TTYL for the postseason, however long it may last. Twitter blackouts: the new playoff beard.
So what'll it be? The Rangers had issues with Ottawa all season, particularly battling their speed. But despite not playing their best hockey to wrap up the final month, New York has proven it can win when it needs to, from the Winter Classic to the home stretch in which it held off advancing Pittsburgh to preserve the top seed. A lesser team would have wilted, and the Rangers won't flop here, either. Rangers in five.
Representative song: The Lion King, "I Just Can't Wait to Be King." While the Rangers are working on their roar — thus far, in past playoff appearances, a raaaather uninspiiiiring thing — Henrik Lundqvist is focused on being, in his words, the best. Everywhere you look, from HBO's Real Sports to the cover of Sports Illustrated (noooo!) to the New York Times, he's standing in the spotlight. (My favorite line from the monster Times profile? "In sewing class, he knitted a pillow shaped like a goalie.") Lundqvist's March and April numbers tailed off a bit from his mid-season excellence, and in past playoff appearances he has had slight trouble matching his regular-season form. But if he can play like he did last time he was on the national stage — at the Winter Classic — it could be a long and fruitful postseason for the Rangers.
What's the story here? You know the deal with the Bruins: They won the Cup last year, which doesn't mean good things for them this season: No one has won back-to-back cups since 1998. But the Bruins have it all: size (Zdeno Chara), strength (Dennis Seidenberg), skill (Tyler Seguin), and sons-of-bitches (Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic). Tim Thomas has been good enough, and he plays his best when he's angry, which he sure seems to be this year.
And the Capitals oh, the Capitals. A team picked by many to win the Cup out of the East, or at least to meet up with Pittsburgh in the conference finals, instead had as dismal a season as one could have while still making it to the playoffs. Bruce Boudreau now lives in California, Alex Ovechkin is no longer said in the same breath with the name Sidney Crosby, and Nicklas Backstrom went through a concussion scare for much of the year. The Capitals now find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being the underdog — which might be the best thing for the baffling team.
The big questions: Will third-string Washington goalie Braden Holtby, who will be getting the playoff start as a result of injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, get completely lit up, or will he shine brightly? Will the Capitals do to the Bruins what most teams have done to the Capitals in playoffs past and come away with the upset? Will Ovechkin play defense? (Ha, of course not.) Can Joel Ward provide the playoff points the team acquired him specifically to get? Will the absence of the Bruins' Nathan Horton, a playoff hero for them in the past, hurt the team more than David Krejci, who has secretly been one of the best Bruins, can make up for? And if Thomas doesn't play well, then what?
Any bad blood? Not too much at the moment: Even the reaction to Jason Chimera's hit on Adam McQuaid a few weeks ago remained surprisingly civil and level-headed by most hockey standards. After Tim Thomas's January White House snub, though, expect lots of bad jokes and even worse zingers to come out of the woodwork. (Thomas cut short a scrum on Monday when asked about his decision.)
Fun fact: Both times the two teams have met in the playoffs, the winner has gone on to the Stanley Cup finals. (And lost.)
So what'll it be? The start of the playoffs is the start of a whole new season, and I can legitimately see the Capitals seeming like a whole new team. For years they've plowed through the regular season and not known how to handle the grittiness of the postseason. This year, they've had to battle other teams (and each other) pretty much every day. The Caps won three of four games against Boston this season, but the Bruins are too good to bow out this early, and they'll be attacking the relatively untested Holtby with vigor each game. This could legitimately be Bruins in four, or it could be Capitals in seven, triple overtime. But I'll go with the Big Bad boys from Boston in a back-and-forth six.
Representative song: Ozzy Osbourne, "Crazy Train." The cities positioned at either end of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line haven't had a meaningful sports showdown in quite some time: You have to go back to 1998 to find the last time the Beltway battled the Hub in the postseason. If this series does indeed go off the rails, one thing's for sure: We'll have millions of people living as fo-oh-oh-es.
What's the story here? There's always one series that makes everyone roll their eyes, and this one is it.
The Panthers, after an offseason in which GM Dale Tallon made wholesale changes to the roster through free agency and trades, earned the 3 seed in the East by virtue of winning the Southeastern division — not a bragworthy task this year, though. They did so with a record of 38-26-18, meaning that they left the rink as losers more often than not. Still, they were winners all the same, which is more than can be said for the Washington Capitals. The Panthers may be returning to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade as a franchise, but the roster players have a fair amount of postseason experience: nine of them, including several who were on the 2010 Cup-winning Blackhawks, have played in 30+ playoff games.
The Devils, after missing the playoffs lat season, rebounded thanks in large part to the play of Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored at a monstrous 1.28 point per game pace after the All Star break, and Zach Parise, the team captain who is, ominously for Devils fans, a free agent after this season. Overshadowed by a stacked Atlantic Division that was arguably the best in the league, the Devils also saw largely unheralded seasons from Patrick Elias and David Clarkson.
The big questions: can 39-year old goaltender Martin Brodeur get past the first round for the first time since 2007? Can the Panthers — who gamely managed to draw so many of their games to overtime or a shoot out but could not capitalize once there — find clutch game-winning scoring in the playoffs' endless overtimes? And can the Devils, who won 12 games in a shootout this year, find success five on five?
Any bad blood? Nah. You'll likely hear a few times each game about how first-year Devils coach Pete DeBoer was fired by the Panthers after last season when the team finished last in the Eastern Conference. There's also the fact that the last time the Panthers made the playoffs — way back in 2000, the longest-running drought in the league until this weekend — they were swept by New Jersey. But other than that, there isn't much hatred. Yet.
Fun fact: A week after Newark mayor Cory Booker called the Devils' part-owner Jeff Vanderbeek "a highfalutin huckster and hustler" and complained that he was getting shut out of a Bruce Springsteen concert out of revenge, the city of Newark decided to reduce its police presence around the arena. If only that had included a reference to Taylor Ham it would have been the New Jerseyest sentence of all time.
So what'll it be? Everyone and their mother is picking the Panthers to be swept or lose in five games, which seems like a sure sign that they'll prove the doubters wrong, as they have all season, and pull this one out somehow. But still, I can't bring myself to pick them over New Jersey, who have been sneaky-good all year long and must be salivating at the opportunity to play a team with such a negative goal differential. Count me in with the consensus: Devils in five.
Representative song: "How Do You Like Me Now?!" by Toby Keith. Because (a) it could have been used as an alternate soundtrack to this hilarious Florida Panthers official psych-up video that mockingly included lines from local beat writers who had predicted doom for the team (as, it should be noted, did most pundits nationwide, including yours truly), (b) the New Jersey Devils are the quintessential overlooked team, (c) hockey players tend to love country, and (d) wait — this is the official music video for this song?! It looks like some Korean karaoke creation, although in those videos they always kill themselves/each other at the end.
(Which brings us to )
What's the story here? Pretty simple: the best first-round series of all. The league's top three skaters this season will all be on the ice in this one: Sidney Crosby, Geno Malkin, and Philadelphia's Claude Giroux. The Penguins have been a revolving door of players this season, with injuries variously sidelining star players from Crosby to Kris Letang. Apart, they are strong. Together, they are just downright scary. Sidney Crosby has 37 points in 22 games this season. Let that sink in for a second. Even if he were to get injured again, oh, there's Geno Malkin, who scored 50 this season. And Marc-Andre Fleury is maybe the most fun goalie to watch in the league.
The Flyers blew up a roster that took them to the Stanley Cup finals two years ago, trading Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in the offseason, and lost stalwart Chris Pronger to a probably career-ending concussion early on. But their double-down bet on Giroux paid off: The forward finished with 93 points, third in the league, and the Flyers played much better than you'd expect such a young squad to play. But while Philly has done well against Pittsburgh, winning four of six, they haven't been so hot against the other top teams in the league. Of the 22 games they've played against the best eight squads this season, they've lost 14.
The big questions: There's really only one: Will we get the December version of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, or the on-his-head March vintage?
Any bad blood? LOL. Let's put it this way: Someone will be decapitated or otherwise dead by the time this series is over. The New York Times calls the intra-state rivalry "Yankees–Red Sox, on Ice." Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang described it as "two teams that hate each other."3 Even Wikipedia, ever so diplomatically, explains that "The rivalry exists due to divisional alignment and geographic location, as both teams play in the state of Pennsylvania." From a quintuple-overtime game in 2000, to the fact that once-beloved Penguins Maxime Talbot and Jaromir Jagr are now wearing Philadelphia orange, to the recent stick-smashing, bench-climbing, "gutless"-ing fight between the two teams' coaches that made a meme out of poor ol' Pierre-in-the-middle, this is a hatefest for the ages.
Fun fact: After Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette attributed Philadelphia's success in Pittsburgh to their postgame meal of ribs, the owner of the West Virginia rib joint Dee Jay's vowed: "No more ribs for them." Dewey Guida had been "friends for years" with Laviolette ever since he coached the nearby Wheeling Nailers ECHL team over a decade ago.
So what'll it be? This will be a series that goes, literally and figuratively, into overtime. Lots and lots of overtime. But while Philly won four of six regular-season games, the Penguins are just too good to lose in a dedicated seven-game series. The other teams in the East are lucky that one of these two will be golfing by May. Penguins in seven, with each team taking a game (or two!) in the other one's barn.
Representative song: Tupac Shakur, "Hit 'Em Up." Get out the way, yo, get out the way, yo, 87 just got dropped 4 Because, of all the first-round playoff series, this is the one that best exemplifies the lofty ideals of "fuck you and yo' muthafuckin mama."
Hint: It's not.
Even the injured ones!
They secretly love each other, though, too: When the NHL began considering a realignment plan that would separate the two teams, they held hands and refused to let go.
Also, James van Riemsdyk is from N.E.W. Jerz, where many murders occurs.