The National Hockey League boasts about its parity and the notion that the Stanley Cup is equally up for grabs every year. It’s true, technically, but only to a point. Championship teams are usually made from repeat contenders, teams that enjoy an upward swing before everything snaps into place.
It was no more apparent than last season, when the Kings grabbed the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and won their first title. It wasn’t a total shocker, however, to many who picked them before the season. They didn’t meet expectations during the regular season before playing to their potential at the right time.
At best, the idea that any team making the playoffs can contend is grossly misleading. In the seven seasons between the two lockouts, 10 of the 14 teams that reached the finals finished fourth or better in their respective conferences. Four times during that span, both finalists were in the top four.
Yes, there was No. 8 Edmonton riding hot goaltending and reaching the finals in 2006. And Philadelphia was a seventh seed before falling to Chicago in 2010. Take a closer look, and you see a Flyers team that was loaded with talent but underachieved during the season. Last year, it was the Kings beating sixth-seeded New Jersey.
For the most part, when predicting series, it’s best to stick with the percentages. More weight should be added to teams playing well leading into the postseason. Washington was in danger of missing the postseason at midseason, but the Capitals closed went on a 15-2-2 run and cruised to the division title.
That alone makes them dangerous.
Last year, I picked the Kings before the season and stayed with my first guess throughout the playoffs. It’s difficult doing the same this year after taking the Rangers to win it all before the season began. The Blueshirts could get knocked out in the first round with the Caps playing so well down the stretch.
Regardless, it’s hard to fathom anyone beating the Blachawks four times in a best-of-seven series after they had seven regulation losses all season, allowed the fewest goals in the NHL and had an 18-4-2 record on the road. Chicago needed 49 years to win the Cup but has the best chance to win it for the second time in four years.
Here’s a closer look at the first-round matchups:
Pittsburgh (1) vs. N.Y. Islanders (8)
Big Picture: Pittsburgh earned the top seed after scoring an NHL-leading 165 goals despite being without Sidney Crosby, who suffered a broken jaw March 30. He’s skating but his return remains uncertain. The Islanders haven’t been to the playoffs since 2006-07, when the Sabres delivered a first-round KO.
Snapshot: Goaltender Evgeni Nabakov appeared in 41 games and helped the Isles reach the playoffs, but he had a 2.50 GAA (24th) and a .910 save percentage (25th). However, he has a 10-1-4 record since losing to the Penguins on March 22.
Prediction: Pittsburgh shouldn’t need Crosby to skate past the Isles. Look for the Penguins to win the series in five games.
Montreal (2) vs. Ottawa (7)
Big Picture: Good luck finding a first-round series with better story lines than two Canadian teams and division rivals, separated by 120 miles, playing one another. Montreal surged from worst to first in the Northeast Division. Ottawa overcame numerous injuries to its top players to make the playoffs.
Snapshot: Sens’ defenseman Erik Karlsson is back after suffering an Achilles injury that many expected to end his season. He had two assists and set up the winning goal that clinched a playoff spot upon returning. He’s healthy and well-rested.
Prediction: Montreal had a better record on the road (15-7-2) than at home (14-7-3), which will serve it well in the playoffs. This series is closer than their seeds suggest. Habs in seven games.
Washington (3) vs. N.Y. Rangers (6)
Big Picture: The Rangers were picked by many before the season to win the Stanley Cup but, like the Kings last year, underachieved for much of the season. New York is better than sixth in the conference. The Capitals were 15-2-2 in their last 19 games, which makes for a dangerous playoff team.
Snapshot: Alex Ovechkin carried the Caps in the second half of the season, scoring 19 goals in the final 19 games and finishing with 32. Half of his goals came on the NHL’s best power play (26.8 percent), but the Caps were 27th on the penalty kill (77.9).
Prediction: The Rangers also had a strong finish and appear to be coming together at the right time. Add the better goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, and they win in seven games.
Boston (4) vs. Toronto (5)
Big Picture: The two Original Six teams will add another chapter to their long and storied history. Toronto hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2004. Boston won the Cup in 2011. Fans in both cities are still talking about a 2009 trade that sent Phil Kessel to Toronto and allowed Boston to select Tyler Seguin in 2010.
Snapshot: Jaromir Jagr, still chugging along at age 41, had nine points in 11 games after arriving from Dallas. The Bruins need him to help their power play, which was 26th during the regular season and has been a trouble spot for too long.
Prediction: Boston struggled down the stretch with three wins in its final 10 games, but Toronto wasn’t much better (5-4-1). Leafs in six games.
Chicago (1) vs. Minnesota (8)
Big Picture: The Blackhawks started the season without a regulation loss in an NHL-record 24 games. The Wild spent big money in an attempt to stay with teams like Chicago, but they needed a victory in the final game of the regular season to snatch the final playoff spot.
Snapshot: Patrick Kane led the Hawks in scoring with 23 goals and 55 points in 47 games, which put him on pace for career highs in both categories over a full season. He’s not likely to win the Hart Trophy, but he worked his way into the conversation.
Prediction: Chicago’s play late in the season (10-3-2) was just as telling as its record-breaking start. The Blackhawks weren’t hot. They’re just good. Chicago in five.
Anaheim (2) vs. Detroit (7)
Big Picture: The series matches teams going in opposite directions. The Ducks soared from 13th in the conference to second in one season. The Red Wings, a long-time superpower, had their worst finish since the league implemented the Eastern and Western conferences. Anaheim’s great start was overshadowed by Chicago’s better one.
Snapshot: Ducks goalie Viktor Fasth had a good year with a 2.18 GAA and .921 save percentage, but he struggled to a 4-5-1 record in his final 10 games.
Prediction: The Red Wings were playing better late in the season. Detroit in six.
Vancouver (3) vs. San Jose (6)
Big Picture: San Jose has won nine playoff series in the past eight seasons but hasn’t been able to push through to the Stanley Cup. The Sharks had only two home losses in regulation. Vancouver won the Northwest Division, which was weak this season, for the fifth time in six years. It doesn’t have the same firepower it had a few years ago.
Snapshot: The Canucks are hoping Derek Roy, who had three goals and six points in 12 games after arriving in a trade, can provide depth they need on the third line.
Prediction: Vancouver is the better team, but San Jose goalie Antti Niemi is capable of stealing the series. Canucks in seven.
St. Louis (4) vs. Los Angeles (5)
Big Picture: The Blues’ reward for winning 12 of their final 15 games was drawing the Stanley Cup champions in the first round. Los Angeles has nearly everybody back from last season and knows how to win in the playoffs. The question is whether the Kings can break through enough times against the Blues’ defense and goalie Brian Elliott.
Snapshot: Former Sabres defenseman Robyn Regehr has become a key figure for the Kings while being paired with Drew Doughty. The Kings have tapped into his leadership and toughness, two qualities they already had in abundance. His presence allows Doughty to take more chances in the offensive zone.
Prediction: The Kings will find a way to win at least one series. L.A. in six.