It took all 82 games, but the NHL playoff bracket is finally set. Here’s how I think the quarterfinal round will go:
Starting in the Western Conference, I think the Dallas Stars will handle the Minnesota Wild with relative ease. While I worry about the Stars’ defense and goaltending in later rounds, I think they will be able to handle Minnesota’s struggling offense in five games. Staying on the Central Division side of the bracket, the St. Louis Blues had a fantastic season and have the potential to go far in these playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they are playing a Chicago Blackhawks team that does pretty well in the Stanley Cup playoffs. If the Blues played any other team in the West they would be advancing, but they aren’t, so Hawks in six.
Moving to the Pacific Division, the Anaheim Ducks became more balanced as the season progressed. They found their scoring stride toward the end of the season, and boast the league’s best goals against per game, power play and penalty kill percentage, which bode well for the Predators. Despite being well balanced, they will have a tough time making it out of the first round. Unless Pekka Rinne takes over this series, the Ducks will beat the Predators in five. The Kings and Sharks matchup at the bottom of the bracket will be one of the most exciting to watch because the two teams cannot stand each other. It also helps that this season the Kings were one of the best teams in goals against per game, and the Sharks were one of the best in scoring per game. In the end, I think the Kings will take this series in six based on tremendous power play and the goaltending of Jonathan Quick, while the Sharks are still figuring out whether to start Martin Jones or Jonathan Bernier in net.
In the Eastern Conference, the Florida Panthers mix of veteran prowess and young studs propelled them to the best record in the Atlantic Division, while their opponents, the Islanders, are limping into the playoffs. A healthy Isles team would make this series much more appealing, but since New York is as injured as they are, I think the Panthers take this series in five. On that same side of the bracket, the Tampa Bay Lighting and Detroit Red Wings meet in the first round once again this season. This matchup is also compelling because the Lighting are missing key players on both offense and defense, while the Red Wings struggled down the stretch. I think the Lightning have the most important advantage at goaltender with Ben Bishop, which will make the difference in a very close matchup – Lighting in seven.
In the Metropolitan Division, the Capitals have been the strongest team in the NHL all season, and I don’t see that stopping against the Flyers. They’ll win in five. For the Rangers-Penguins series, there is a lot of question marks. The Penguins have injuries to Evgeni Malkin and their top two goaltenders, while the Rangers could be missing captain Ryan McDonagh. The Penguins have been the hottest team in the NHL since late March, but they’re without Marc-Andre and possibly Matt Murray. This could be the difference between winning and losing the series for them. In my least confident pick of the bracket, I have the Rangers in seven.
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