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NHL Playoff Preview

Here’s a great NHL Playoff preview from Alex Smith. Follow him on twitter at @axsmithsports Get all of Alex’s plays at http://handicappers.kellyinvegas.com/pro-handicapper-alex-smith-sports-1778/

*****EASTERN CONFERENCE*****

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Boston Bruins: #1 in Atlantic (54-19-9, 117 pts)
The reigning Eastern Conference Champions, Boston, has taken the East by storm once again, clinching the top seed in the Conference for the first time since 2008-09, and winning the President’s Trophy for the first time since 1989-90. The B’s have 8 scorers with double-digit goals, and 5 with over 20+ goals (Lucic, Iginla, Bergeron, Smith, Marchand). But don’t let the goal scoring fool you; this team is still as physical as any in the league. While they’ve had some injury issues on defense, their depth has picked up the slack, with a stingy 2.09 Goals Against/Game, and an 83.5% PK percentage, good for 8th in the league. That’s mostly due to Bronze-Medal winning Goalie Tuukka Rask (35-15-6, 2.06 GAA; .929 Sv%, 7 SO) having a Vezina-trophy caliber season. These guys can throw the body as well, Milan Lucic leading the club with 240 hits, along with 3 others who logged in over 150+ hits. One rookie to watch out for this Post-Season is defenseman Kevan Miller. While his contributions might not make the highlight reel every game, his presence is definitely felt on the ice, with a +20 rating and 58 Penalty Minutes (4 fighting majors) to his credit, Miller was rewarded with a 2-year extension and will surely be handling the dirty work in the corners, and along the blue-line.

Detroit Red Wings: #4 in Atlantic (39-28-15, 91 pts)
The Red Wings make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for their 23rd consecutive season. Although life back in the Eastern Conference wasn’t year for the Winged Wheel. They might want to consider sending the Maple Leafs a case of good whisky, for it was Toronto’s late-season collapse that launched Detroit into the postseason. Injuries severely haunted this team all season, with every star player missing significant time during this campaign, and they will have to play without forward Henrik Zetterberg (back injury suffered during the Sochi Olympics) and will miss defenseman Johnathan Ericsson with a hand issue for a good part of the First Round. Fortunately, their organizational depth has really shined and produced some major contributors. Gustav Nyquist was in the AHL with Grand Rapids two seasons ago, and proved to be a big splash last season during the playoff run for the Wings. This season, he’s followed things up with a club-leading 28 goals. Overall, 20 players have hit the double-digit mark in points, which shows that anyone on this squad can step up for a night and pull out a win. It helps when you have a World Class goaltender like Jimmy Howard between the pipes as well. Despite battling shoulder problems and having to suit up for Team USA in Sochi, Howard has posted some respectable figures this year (21-19-11, 2.66 GAA; .910 Sv%)

Series Preview: These two teams have battled hard against one another and have loads of playoff experience. I feel that this will be one of the most enjoyable match-ups in the First Round. Boston likes to push teams around and get under player’s skins, but Detroit is as disciplined as any club in the league. However, I think the Red Wings are a bit short, depth-wise, to compete with a Bruins team that skates four hard lines that find ways to score, within a Best-of-7 series.

Prediction: Bruins in 6

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Tampa Bay Lightning: #2 in Atlantic (46-27-9, 101 pts)
The ‘Bolts have had an interesting 2nd half of the Season. Cut to November, a couple of weeks before the Sochi Olympic rosters are announced, when Superstar forward Steven Stamkos fractures his leg, and is out for Team Canada, but also assumed done for the season. Tampa GM Steve Yzerman seemingly had an easy replacement in-house as head of the Canadien National Team by adding long-time franchise face Martin St. Louis to the roster, which would have most likely been the last Olympics for the 41-year old captain. Instead, Yzerman went a different route, which angered St. Louis so much that he requested a trade out of town, which saw him go to Broadway, and Rangers captain Ryan Callahan come to the Bay. Cut to the last week of the Season. Stamkos is back (and wearing the ‘C’) and Callahan has been an okay addition to the club, but now goalie Ben Bishop has come down with an upper-body injury, and Anders Lindback is the #1 netminder until Bishop is ready to return. Lindback is the epitome of untested and unproven when it comes to Playoff Hockey. He’s 34-35-5 All-Time in the NHL, but has only played in 12 Postseason games, and only 1 of those was in North America. Add into the factor that Stamkos, in only playing 36 games, is Tied for the team lead in Goals (25) with Valtteri Flippula, who played in double the amount of contests (but has also been banged up recently), and you’re looking at a team who isn’t full of offensive firepower. With a Middle-of-the-Road Power Play and a Bottom 10 PK squad (18.6% & 80.7% respectively). This team will have to show up with some extra-special Special Teams productivity to make a deep Playoff Run.

Montreal Canadiens: #3 in Atlantic (46-28-8, 100 pts)
“Les Habitants” are looking to end the drought and become the first club from the Great North to win a Stanley Cup since they won it all 21 years ago in 1993. This team isn’t exactly stacked with Goal-Scorers, but lots of gritty yet talented two-way forwards who can skate hard and create havoc between the circles and develop scoring chances at the right time, which are some of the major keys to making a deep run at a Championship. Guys like Max Pachioretty (39g, 60p) and P.K. Subban (10g, 53p) don’t have to shoulder the load on their own now that the Habs acquired sniper Thomas Vanek (27g, 68p) from the NY Islanders at the Trade Deadline. But in order for this team to bring “La Coupe Stanley” to “La Metropole”, two major things must take place. 1) Veterans like Daniel Briere and Brian Gionta are going to have to step up big-time during this opening round and beyond, and 2) Goal-Medalist Carey Price will have to keep healthy and return to his Olympic-caliber form (33-20-5, 2.36 GAA; .925 Sv%, 5 SO). The latter is what will make the difference between Montreal sipping Champagne in June or “Le Pinard” in May.

Series Preview: This will be a very tight, very chippy series. In their 4 Regular Season meetings, 3 games went past regulation, two games had massive fights break out due to some dirty play, and Tampa Bay skated away with the 3-1 record. I expect more of the same, but I feel with Bishop coming off of injury, the edge goes to the Habs. This is a big year for Carey Price. He’s got Olympic gold, and now the pressure is really on for him to get a Cup back to not just Montreal, but the entire nation of Canada. Price is capable of filling out that role, and his team has more offensive talent than the Bolts, and I think it makes the difference here in Round 1.

Prediction: Habs in 6

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Philadelphia Flyers: #3 in Metropolitan (42-31-9, 93 pts)
The Flyers shook things up very early, Firing Peter Laviolette after 3 games and replacing him with Craig Berube, who took the reigns smoothly and got this team into the playoffs despite tons of nagging injuries to many key players, notably Vinny Lecavalier (20g, 37p in 68 games) and Scott Hartnell (20g, 52p in 77 games). Philly has shown year in and year out that they can play a flashy offensive contest, or a gritty, hard-hitting game and excel in either style. When you have guys like Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds (29g, 60p, 106PIM, 15 PPG) and Steve Downie (24pts, 106PIM) and who can score goals, throw checks & drop the gloves, you can compete with any team in the NHL. One major question with this club is goaltending. Both Steve Mason (33-18-7, 2.50 GAA; .917 Sv%, 4 SO) & Ray Emery (9-12-2, 2.96 GAA; .903 Sv%) have had their cold streaks and injury issues all year, with the former possibly hurt for the beginning of the Playoffs. It seems like every year the Flyers make the postseason, they have trouble in net. I feel like this will once again be their Achilles’ heel.

New York Rangers: #2 in Metropolitan (45-31-6, 96 pts)
When the Coach-Swap between the Canucks and Rangers took place in the off-season, I didn’t like the fit of Alain Vigneault in Manhattan (But I said that John Tortorella in Vancouver would be way worse, I nailed that call) But the Blueshirts rallied around the former Adams award winner and have made it to the postseason for the 3rd consecutive season. The unlikeliest of heroes for the Rangers this year has been Mats Zuccarello (19g, 59p). The pint-sized forward really put this team on his back when star Rick Nash was missing time due to injury. Also helping out in a major way has been the defense corps of Dan Girardi (5g, 24p) and Ryan McDonagh (14g, 43p), who have been doing their job on the blue-line, blocking shots and splitting passes, but also contributing on the score sheet as of late. Shoring things up between the pipes is Silver-Medalist Henrik Lundqvist (33-24-5, 2.36 GAA; .920 Sv%, 5 SO), who could be in line to win his 2nd Vezina trophy in 3 seasons. The biggest addition to this squad is winger Martin St. Louis. Acquired at the Trade Deadline, the Conn Smythe winner adds a whole new dynamic to this team offensively, especially on the Power Play unit, which is already solid (18.2%)

Series Preview: New York and Philadelphia, like in every sport, have a mutual hatred for one another, deeply rooted in tradition. These two teams will face one another for the first time in the postseason since 1997. Both teams have similar stories of new coaches, tons of talent, but haven’t quite gotten over the hump. The Flyers did make it to the Finals in 2010, but haven’t been much further since, and for the Blueshirts, it’s been 20 years since they have played in a Cup Final. The Rangers have a tremendous edge in net, but this series will come down to who can play more disciplined hockey and stay out of the box. Both teams have dangerous Power Play units and that will be the deciding factor in what should be a very tight series. Goals will certainly be at a premium.

Prediction: Rangers in 6

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Pittsburgh Penguins: #1 in Metro (51-25-6, 108 pts)
It’s business as usual for the Pens, who won the Metropolitan Division without many of their key pieces from previous years. Pascal Dupuis (7g, 20p before season-ending knee injury) and Kris Letang (11g, 21p, returning finally from a stroke, causing him to miss 46 games) haven’t been around, and even James Neal (27g, 61p in 58 games) and Evgeni Malkin (23g, 72p in 60 games) have been hampered by significant injuries. Which sets up the breakout year for who many claim to be the best in the world, Sidney Crosby, to put up Hart Trophy quality numbers (36g, 104p – Art Ross Trophy winner for most pts) along with a cast of mid-line grinders and energy players who filled in very will for the wounded Penguins. Guys like Chris Kunitz (35g, 67p), Jussi Jokinen (21g, 57p) and Brandon Sutter (13g, 26p) had very productive campaigns, and now with Letang and Malkin back for the Playoffs, Pittsburgh has the most dangerous depth of any club in the Eastern Conference. With the #1 Power Play in the League (23.4%, tied with Washington) this is not a team you want to give a man-advantage to. Usually this would be the time where I talk about how Marc-Andre Fleury is the reason why this team might not even make it out of the First Round, but this season (39-18-5, 2.37 GAA; .915 Sv%, 5 SO) He has looked very sharp, and might be returning to his old form which saw him lead the Penguins to Back-to-Back Cup Finals in ’07-08 & ’08-09.

Columbus Blue Jackets: #4 in Metro (43-32-7. 93 pts)
Columbus Returns to the Playoffs for the first time since 2008-09, when the Red Wings swept them in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Now in the East, the Blue Jackets are looking to not just make more team history, but to pull the upset and win a series. This isn’t a flashy squad by any means. CBJ likes to skate hard and create traffic and chaos on offense. Led by Ryan Johansen (33g, 63p), Brandon Dubinsky (16g, 50p) and James Wisniewski (7g, 51p) Columbus will need full team efforts in every game to win a series this post-season. One major piece that can help the Jackets steal a game or two is reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky (32-20-5, 2.38 GAA; .923 Sv%), who is without question the MVP of this team and the reason they are even in the Playoffs.

Series Preview: Nothing is ever definite in a playoff series, especially when talking about the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But this is a terrible match-up for Columbus. The Penguins swept the Blue Jackets in all five-season contests and with these two clubs going in different directions as franchises (Pittsburgh needs a return to at least the Conference Finals with this nucleus core in tact, while this is another building block for Columbus.) I do see the Jackets winning one game, but you can only ride a goalie for so long in a 7-game series against the hottest offense in the league.

Prediction: Penguins in 5

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*****WESTERN CONFERENCE*****

Colorado Avalanche: #1 in Central (52-22-8, 112 pts)
One of the biggest stories of the entire NHL season, without question, is the resurgence of the Colorado Avalanche, which all credit is due to ex-Avs Joe Sakic as GM and Patrick Roy as Head Coach. Roy’s feisty intensity and passion was displayed in their opening game, as he nearly hopped the partition boards while yelling at Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau over a dirty hit late in the contest. That spark trickled down to his team and Colorado jumped out of the gate to a 10-1-0 Record in October, and sped ahead with a 13-5-1 Record before the Olympic Break. Rookie forward Nathan MacKinnon (24g, 63p) is a shoe-in for the Calder Trophy (Rookie of The Year) and Gabriel Landeskog (26g, 65p) and Ryan O’Reilly (28g, 64p) have been major factors as well, but the Avalanche might start off the First Round without Top Scorer Matt Duchene (23g, 70p) as he recovers from a knee injury. In Net, Semyon Varlamov (41-14-6, 2.41 GAA; .927 Sv%) will lead the way after a stellar season that could see him win the Vezina Trophy (Best Goalie). And just in case Varlamov falters or get hurt during his first Playoff series since 2009-10, the Avs have cagey vet J-S Giguere (21-11-6, 2.61 GAA; .913 Sv%) as their backup, “Giggy” was the Conn Smythe Winner (Playoff MVP) for the Anaheim Ducks a decade ago, and gives Colorado one of, if not, the best goaltending tandems in this postseason.

Minnesota Wild: #4 in Central (46-24-12, 98 pts)
While loaded with tons of young talent, the Minnesota Wild might be one of, if not the, weakest entries in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. Injuries have been to blame for most of the inconsistency this year, with only 3 playoff qualifying teams having more man games lost than the Wild in the league. Jason Pominville (32g, 63p) and Matt Moulson (23g, 51p) have the most points of any player who skated in more than 70 games. Mikko Koivu (11g, 55p), Zach Parise (30g, 58p) and Dany Heatley (12g, 28p) have been sidelined at various times, and will need to step up and add some punch and power to this often-times anemic offense. Their weakest link is Goaltending. Minnesota started off with Niklas Backstrom (5-11-2) and Josh Harding (18-7-3, 1.66 GAA; .933 Sv%, 3 SO) this season, rode Darcy Kuemper (12-8-4, 2.43 GAA; .915 Sv%) into the Playoffs and now Coach Mike Yeo has to roll with Ilya Bryzgalov (12-10-8, 2.68 GAA; .909 Sv%, 4 SO between Edmonton & Minnesota) and John Curry (1-0 in only appearance for the Wild). Stability will have to be reached quickly if they want to truly compete in this series

Series Preview: This would be a fun series to watch if the Wild can gel together and match the offensive tendencies of Colorado. Unfortunately, I don’t think Minnesota can get that done in a Best-of-7 series, especially when you look at the goaltending match-ups.

Prediction: Avalanche in 5 games

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St. Louis Blues: #2 in Central (52-23-7, 111 pts)
This team started the season as the Dark Horse out of the Western Conference, and they exploded onto the Central Division, eventually leapfrogging over their hated rival Blackhawks and trading punches right down to the wire with the Avalanche for Division & Conference supremacy. This team has the right mix of Skill and Grit to beat anyone in the league, led by Forward T.J. Oshie (21g, 60p), who captured National attention, when he single-handedly beat Russia in the Olympics as member of Team USA, and a solid supporting cast with David Backes (27g, 57p), Alex Steen (33g, 62p) and Kevin Shattenkirk (10g, 45p) And don’t forget about the goaltending, which boasts newly acquired Olympian Ryan Miller (25-29-4, 2.63 GAA; .919 Sv% between Buffalo and St. Louis) and Brian Elliott (18-6-2, 1.96 GAA; .922 Sv%, 4 SO). So, with talent this deep on Offense, Defense, and Goaltending, Basically one might say the Blues’ just have to show up to win the Cup this season, just one problem with that. The injury bug has hit this team all over at the absolute worst possible time. At the end of the season, 8 major forwards are currently Day-to-Day or Out Indefinitely heading into the Playoffs, which has lead to an equally untimely 6 Game Losing Streak that (led to them losing the Division title to Colorado and the #1 Overall Seed to Anaheim). Add into the mix that this team has just plain ‘ole “Bad Luck” during the Playoffs for well past 20+ years, and I wouldn’t exactly be running to any books on the Vegas Strip to bet on this team winning it all this Summer.

Chicago Blackhawks: #3 in Central (46-21-15, 107 pts)
It’s never easy to repeat as Champions in any sport, but especially when it comes to winning Back-to-Back Stanley Cup Championships. The Hawks will look to be the first team since the ’97-98 Red Wings to hoist the Cup in 2 consecutive years. Making that happen is going to rest on the sticks of their two high scoring, yet recently injured superstars Patrick Kane (29g, 69p) and Jonathan Toews (28g, 68p). While this team is loaded with plenty of offensive talent like Marian Hossa (30g, 60p), Brandon Saad (19g, 47p) and Club-leading goal-scorer and pointman Patrick Sharp (34g, 78p), It’s the Dynamic Duo of Kane & Toews that create consistent space and opportunity on the ice, especially on the Power Play, which despite their 8th ranked 19.6% conversion rate, has looked very anemic at various times this season, especially when 10 of their players returned back from long stints in Sochi at the Olympics. Goalie Corey Crawford (32-16-10, 2.26 GAA; .917 Sv%) was facing some criticism during last year’s Cup Finals, but now is actually proving many of those critics to be correct in several of their assessments. For Chicago to make it out of their tough divisional rounds, the one they call “Craw” will have to find his next level of sharpness and play big in net, otherwise Coach Joel Quenneville will feel the pressure of possibly turning to Rookie backup Antti Raanta, who has played very well in relief this season (13-5-4, 2.71 GAA; .897 Sv%)

Series Preview: A classic Playoff rivalry renewed, the Hawks and Blues haven’t played each other in the postseason since the 2001-02 season. Things are much different nowadays, especially on the West Side of Chicago, where the Blackhawks have since captured 2 Stanley Cups in the last 4 seasons and have made the Playoffs for 6 consecutive years, while the Blues, who had their 23-year streak snapped in ’09-10, have played in the last 2 postseasons, only to fall in the First Round each year. Chicago owns the playoff experience, but both teams have been struggling with key injuries and inconsistent play heading into the series. While Kane and Toews seem ready to return, many of the wounded Blues’ stars, have nagging “Day-to-Day” injuries, which tend to worsen over the course of a Best-of-7 series. This will be a very physical series, which is how St. Louis will want to dictate the play, but if the Hawks can find their scoring stroke early, this series won’t last too long.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6 games

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Los Angeles Kings: #3 in Pacific (46-28-8, 100 pts)
The Kings are always a tough draw in the Postseason. Just a couple of seasons removed from their Stanley Cup winning year in 2011-12. Coach Darryl Sutter will have this team prepped to play their usual brand of tough-nosed, hard-skating hockey. Compared to the other entries in the Western Conference, LA is pretty healthy (only defenseman Drew Doughty (10g, 37p, has been dealing with some shoulder issues) Led by forwards Anze Kopitar (29g, 70p) and Dustin Brown (15g, 37p) on the offensive attack, with major contributions by the aforementioned Doughty, along with Mike Richards (11g, 41p) & Justin Williams (19g, 43p) Their Special Teams units haven’t been as strong as in previous years. Kings rank right outside the Top 10 in Penalty Killing, but are near the bottom (26th, to be exact) with the Man-Advantage. Goaltending is this team’s strongest suit, with Jennings Trophy winners Jonathan Quick (27-17-4, 2.07 GAA; .915 Sv%, 6 SO) and Rookie Martin Jones (12-6, 1.81 GAA; .934 Sv%, 4 SO) handling the net for this stingy defensive unit.

San Jose Sharks: #2 in Pacific (51-22-9, 111 pts)
San Jose has won 50+ games in 4 of their last 5 seasons, (Lockout year excluded) and hold one of the best Home-Ice advantages in all of the NHL in the “Shark Tank” that is HP Pavilion. Like their First Round opponent, Los Angeles, the Sharks have solid top lines on offense, Spearheaded by Forwards Joe Pavelski (39g, 77p) Patrick Marleau (35g, 67p) and Logan Couture (22g, 50p) tough grinders on their bottom two lines and a solid penalty killing unit, but a very underachieving Power Play (17%, Ranked 20th) San Jose has a proven net minder with Antti Niemi (38-17-7; 2.40 GAA; .912 Sv%, 4 SO)

Series Preview: These two teams know each other very well. And to say that that dislike one another would be an understatement akin to saying Israel & Iran have a disagreement. These two played in the Western Semi-Finals last year, with the Kings winning in Game 7 on a pair of tallies from Justin Williams that was all LA needed to advance to the Conference Finals. And while the Kings took this season’s series 3-2, the Sharks have home-ice for this year’s playoff round, which is big considering the home team won every game in this series last year. Discipline will be the deciding factor in who makes it to the next round. If LA can control the tempo, play physical enough to rattle SJ without taking a ton of bad penalties, This could be a clear repeat of 2013, but if the Sharks can match the intensity, play smart and score the tough goals from the crease and in traffic, then the Sharks can swim back to the Semis.

Prediction: Sharks in 7 games

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Anaheim Ducks: #1 in Pacific (54-20-8, 116 pts)
The Ducks are headed to the Postseason for the 2nd consecutive year as Pacific Division Champs. Anaheim is 1-4 in Playoff Series since winning the Stanley Cup in ’07=08. This team looks primed to change their losing ways after losing Game 7 to the Red Wings in last year’s opening round. The 1-2 Punch of Corey Perry (43g, 82p) and Ryan Getzlaf (31g, 87p) lead the way for a very potent offensive attack that averages a League-High 3.21 goals/game. Secondary scoring has been provided most of the year by Nick Bonino (22g, 49p), Kyle Palmeri (14g, 31p) and 43-year old Teemu Selanne (9g, 27p) who will be playing his last games this postseason, will have to contribute more to get the Ducks over the hump. In goal, Jonas Hiller (29-13-7, 2.48 GAA; .911 Sv%, 5 SO) is their top choice, but while he’s been battling some injury issues as of late, the Ducks could fly with their backup Fredrik Andersen (20-5, 2.29 GAA; .923 Sv%) if the Swiss Olympian isn’t ready for the First Round.

Dallas Stars: #5 in Central (40-31-11, 91 pts)
Clinching a Wild Card spot and appearing in the Playoffs for the first time since 2007-08, the Dallas Stars will have their hands full with their draw in the postseason. Forwards Tyler Seguin (37g, 84p) and Jamie Benn (34g, 79p) consist of the majority of Big D’s offensive production. The Stars made headlines when winger Rich Peverly suffered a cardiac attack during a game, which led to a delayed (and later re-scheduled) contest. Peverly’s collapse seemed to rally this team together to finish strong (while 9th place Phoenix fell out of contention) and capture the 8th seed in the Western Conference. The Stars have 2 quality, capable goaltenders in Olympic Medalist Kari Lehtonen (33-20-10, 2.41 GAA; .919 Sv%, 5 SO) and Stanley Cup-winner Tim Thomas (18-24-4, 2.89 GAA; .908 Sv% between Florida & Dallas). While Lehtonen has been the #1 guy between the pipes all season, should things get out of hand, Coach Lindy Ruff has a proven back up to plug up the well.

Series Preview: Anaheim dropped two of the three contests versus Dallas during the Regular Season, but this Ducks team is primed and ready to make a deep run in this year’s playoffs. With the loaded talent up front, solid goaltending and a great side-story with Selanne’s retirement, there’s plenty to spark Anaheim into the next round and beyond.

Prediction: Ducks in 5 games

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