Scott Cullen looks at the 2013 playoff picture, breaks down the eight first-round series and lists his Top 150 players based on projections for this year's playoffs.
Beyond Pittsburgh and Chicago at the top of their respective conferences, there isn't a lot to choose between teams seeded second through eighth, so it won't be a surprise if there are upsets. In fact, the upset will be if eight series go to the favourites because chalk doesn't cut it in the NHL playoffs any more.
There are always going to be issues that crop up throughout the postseason and there are some injuries (Sidney Crosby, Cory Schneider) that bear watching before the first puck even drops.
In any case, take the information presented here and do what you will with it. Good luck and have fun!
For more information, please check out the following:
The Playoff Payoff - A more detailed stats breakdown, with strategy, likely line combinations and deep sleepers for each team.
Fantasy Hockey Update - My preferred sleepers.
Fantasy Hockey Update - Value plays in the TSN Fantasy Hockey Challenge.
NHL Power Rankings - You'll have some idea how good I think a team is based on their finish here.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS vs. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
The Penguins, who have loaded up with in-season acquisitions, are veritable powerhouse, especially if they get Sidney Crosby back from his broken jaw, so taking them down will be a huge challenge for the Islanders.
Pittsburgh has tremendous depth, particularly up front, where the additions of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Jussi Jokinen, along with rookie Beau Bennett have bolstered the Penguins to the point that they are just about impossible to match defensively. The Islanders are more top-heavy, with the focus on John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes on the No. 1 line, but the key to the Isles' strong finish was production from the second line of Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo.
If the Islanders are going to pressure the Penguins, they need their defence to rattle Pittsburgh's skilled forwards and they need to crash the net and get Marc-Andre Fleury off his game. Fleury struggled in last year's playoffs, and it's why the Penguins have Tomas Vokoun waiting in reserve, but winning the goaltending battle is a must. One other factor to consider is that, while the Penguins were a dominant team, their shot differential (plus-0.80) was worse than the Islanders (plus-2.70). Admittedly, injuries were a factor in the Penguins' overall numbers, but if Crosby's out of the lineup for any amount of time, maybe, just maybe, the Penguins might not have such an easy time of it.
The Pick: Penguins in five.
MONTREAL CANADIENS vs. OTTAWA SENATORS
Montreal rebounded dramatically this season, with young players, from rising stars P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty to rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, leading the charge. Ottawa managed to stay in the playoff picture despite crippling injuries, most notably to C Jason Spezza and D Erik Karlsson. Karlsson made a miraculous return to the lineup in the final week of the regular season, giving the Senators' pop-gun offence a jolt.
Montreal's attack has some depth, with Lars Eller, Gallagher and Galchenyuk contributing offensively along with veterans Tomas Plekanec, Michael Ryder and Brian Gionta. What the Canadiens don't have is great size and that could be the matchup to watch, Montreal's nimble forwards going against Ottawa's defence which, aside from Karlsson, is inhabited by towering oaks, particularly now that 6-foot-5 Jared Cowen has returned to the lineup too. If the Canadiens can use their speed to create chances and draw penalties, they should be okay, but if the Senators' size keeps the front of the net clear, Montreal could have difficulty.
Ottawa's attack doesn't have a lot going for it -- they finished 27th in goals per game (2.33) -- so they cobble things together, with Kyle Turris leading the way and contributions from old guys, D Sergei Gonchar and RW Daniel Alfredsson, and rookies, C Mika Zibanejad and RW Jakob Silfverberg. Montreal's defence isn't the toughest to play against, particularly after losing Alexei Emelin to a season-ending knee injury, but the Senators don't necessarily have the personnel to take full advantage either.
As it is in many series, it could come down to goaltending and if regular season form holds true, it would be disastrous for the Canadiens. Craig Anderson's .941 save percentage was best in the league this year, while Carey Price's .905 save percentage was tied for 31st, with Jonathan Quick the only playoff starter to post a worse save percentage. If Anderson regresses towards career norms and Price moves closer to his typical play, then the goaltending could saw off in the middle.
The Pick: Canadiens in seven.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS vs. NEW YORK RANGERS
A pair of teams that started slowly and came on strong late in the season.
Washington has been riding a league-best power play, converting 26.8% of their opportunities, and given their negative shot differential (minus-4.20) they're going to need to win the battle of percentages if they can't win the possession game (Rangers are plus-2.70 on shot differential).
Alex Ovechkin playing like a superstar certainly gives the Rangers reason to fear the Capitals, but it's not just Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. Secondary scoring from Mike Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat and Eric Fehr is necessary when facing a Rangers team that has improved its depth up front. The Blueshirts couldn't find the right mix early in the season, but they are getting more production with a balanced attack, spreading out Rick Nash and Brad Richards, while Derek Stepan has emerged as a top scorer and the forward group has been bolstered by the additions of Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard.
Both the Capitals (Brooks Laich) and Rangers (Ryane Clowe) have quality forwards dealing with injuries, so whatever contribution they can get from those players would be helpful.
Washington's defence has reaped some rewards from Mike Green's offensive resurgence, and while John Carlson and Karl Alzner are good pieces, they are still playing John Erskine top four minutes, a career-high 18:28 per game for the 32-year-old this season. He's tough and nasty, but also is the type of defenceman that faster skilled forwards will target. The Rangers' defence isn't a sure thing either, though it would be notably better if they could get Marc Staal back from the eye injury that has kept him out since March 5. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh are still shutdown beasts who will have to get in Ovechin's face at every opportunity and John Moore, picked up from Columbus in the Marian Gaborik trade, has been a nice addition.
With two relatively evenly-matched teams, the difference may come in net. While Braden Holtby has been great (.931 SV% in the last two months), it's not easy to win the goaltending battle against Henrik Lundqvist, who also has a .931 SV% in the last two months, but has a longer track record.
The Pick: Rangers in seven.
BOSTON BRUINS vs. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Bruins have struggled late in the season and their punishment is getting to face a Toronto team that they've been getting the better of consistently in recent seasons.
Boston has the ability to dominate possession and facing a Toronto team that gets outshot like no other -- their minus-6.00 shot differential is worst in the entire league, let alone among playoff teams -- that could pose real problems.
At the same time, the Bruins haven't had the kind of offensive season that they would have hoped for from the likes of LW Milan Lucic or RW Tyler Seguin, most notably, so that leaves the Bruins struggling to score at times, even when they are handily outshooting the opposition. Toronto's skilled forwards have been very productive, with their 3.02 goals per game ranking sixth in the league. The challenge for Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri -- the most talented of the group -- will be to create their chances against a Boston defence that has continuity, stability and size. If the Leafs forwards can use their speed effectively, they could put the Bruins on their heels, but that hasn't been how the matchup has played out most often.
If the Bruins continue to dominate possession, the Maple Leafs will need a heroic performance from James Reimer in goal. Reimer is the primary reason this year's Leafs reached the playoffs and he'll have to be great, at the very least better than Tuukka Rask, if Toronto is going to harbour legitimate hopes of actually winning in their first playoff appearance since 2004.
The Pick: Bruins in five.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS vs. MINNESOTA WILD
Chicago has been a powerhouse team this season while the Minnesota Wild squeezed into the postseason by the slimmest of margins, so this looks like a mismatch.
Getting Patrick Sharp back from injury has helped give the Blackhawks the scoring depth they need, but they still have trouble down the middle, particularly when Dave Bolland is out (and he currently has a groin injury). Nevertheless, Chicago finds ways to mix and match. When you already have Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad and Sharp, it's easier to move Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw and even deadline pickup Michal Handzus to fill a hole. If the Wild are going to contain the Blackhawks' scorers, a lot of responsibility will fall on Norris candidate Ryan Suter and Calder candidate Jonas Brodin, the Wild's top defence pair. If they can at least neutralize one of Chicago's scoring lines, that will increase the Wild's chances.
Minnesota isn't bereft of talent up front either. Zach Parise and Jason Pominville are newer to the effort, and rookie Charlie Coyle adds size and skill to holdovers Mikko Koivu, Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. It's been production the likes of Cullen and Setoguchi that helped make the Wild a playoff team and it will probably fall on them to make a difference in the postseason if the Wild are going to shock the world. Chicago has a strong defence that has been really steady since adding Johnny Oduya at least year's trade deadline. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson are playoff tested and can handle the responsibility, while former Wild prospect Nick Leddy is promising, yet underused because of Chicago's depth.
Corey Crawford didn't play well in last year's playoffs and it cost the Blackhawks, bouncing them prematurely given the calibre of their play, so he does face a certain amount of pressure to rebound, but Crawford played much better during the regular season this year, so it's reasonable to expect him to be better. Niklas Backstrom is actually coming off one of his worst seasons, his .909 save percentage the second-worst of his career. If the Wild are going to upset Chicago, Backstrom will have to be great.
The Pick: Blackhawks in five.
ANAHEIM DUCKS vs. DETROIT RED WINGS
The Ducks have been getting the better side of percentages this season and that could make them ripe for the upset. A little regression and it's not so easy if you're not outshooting the opponent.
Anaheim has elite talent that they've decided to build around, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, but they need a lot more from others. Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne, notably, haven't produced as much as the Ducks need and if they can't get it done against Detroit, that leaves Saku Koivu and a bunch of unproven performers -- Kyle Palmieri, Nick Bonino, Andrew Cogliano -- to provide the offence and, while the Red Wings don't have the star-studded defence that they've had in the past, Detroit may be able to shut the Ducks down.
Detroit is in a similar position to Anaheim, in some ways, in that Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are elite talents that carry the team, but it's the others that could make the difference. Valtteri Filppula and Johan Franzen have had playoff success in the past. Could Damien Brunner and Gustav Nyquist make a mark this year? Anaheim's defence, while getting strong seasons from Francois Beauchemin and Sheldon Souray, isn't impenetrable, which is why the Ducks' goaltending has been so important.
If the Red Wings maintain a possession edge, that means whomever is in net for Anaheim, Viktor Fasth or Jonas Hiller, will have to get the better of Jimmy Howard. Possible, sure, but Howard has played well this year and it's what makes the Wings a viable upset pick.
The Pick: Red Wings in six.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS vs. SAN JOSE SHARKS
A couple of franchises that have enjoyed plenty of regular season success but still looking for that Stanley Cup grand prize and they meet coming off uninspiring regular seasons.
Vancouver ranked 19th in goals per game this season (fifth, first and second in the previous three seasons) and while adding a healthy Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy (acquired from Dallas) should help the offence, there's a leap of faith required that it's going to be enough. Obviously, the Sedins are still the stars for Vancouver and there is a quality supporting cast that includes Alex Burrows, Jannik Hansen and Mason Raymond, so the personnel shouldn't inherently prevent the Canucks from being an effective offensive team and the Sharks defence isn't forceful enough to think they will just eliminate the Canucks' opportunities.
San Jose has had their own goal-scoring woes, worst among Western Conference playoff teams at 2.42 per game, and one of their answers was to move a defenceman up front. Brent Burns has been terrific as a power forward and adds size, skill and depth up front that allows the Sharks to spread their skilled forwards around three lines, but too many of San Jose's forwards underperformed this season. Vancouver's defence can be very good, but a little erratic too and they could fall prey to some of the Sharks' veterans, whether it's Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski or Martin Havlat, all of whom have had some strong playoff performances in the past.
If the series comes down the goaltending, that works well for San Jose, as they've received strong play from Antti Niemi all season. Right now, the Canucks' goaltending situation is uncertain. If Cory Schneider plays, that's better for the Canucks, enough to give them the edge. If not, and Roberto Luongo is forced into action, it's hard to like what's happening with Luongo on the ice after a disappointing regular season ended with a humiliating defeat in Edmonton Saturday night. I'm going to guess that Schneider will find his way into the net; the sooner, the better for Vancouver.
The Pick: Canucks in seven.
ST. LOUIS BLUES vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS
Two strong teams, both worthy of advancing beyond the first round based on possession indicators, but both have questions in goal that make the series even more intriguing.
St. Louis relies on more of a group effort offensively, as even their best players -- Alex Steen, David Backes, T.J. Oshie (who may be back from injury) -- are two-way players rather than pure scoring machines. Andy McDonald, Chris Stewart, Vladimir Tarasenko and David Perron give the Blues some scoring options up front, but it's more of a collective effort than leaning on a couple of star performers. Matched up against the Kings' defence, there may not be a ton of opportunities available. L.A. has a good mix of puck-movers like Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin along with veterans who lay their bodies on the line -- Robyn Regehr, Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene.
The Kings have their offence focused on their top two lines, primarily, and five of the six spots are handled by productive veterans. Dustin Penner has still been getting time on the wing with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, even though Penner had only two goals in 33 games this season. Not for nothing, but top Kings prospect Tyler Toffoli was reasonably effective in his audition before getting sent back to the AHL. In any case, the Kings' attack isn't going to have an easy time of it, either, going against a Blues defence that added Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold to a group that already included Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Barret Jackman and Roman Polak.
If it is indeed going to be difficult to create enough space to get scoring chances, the goaltenders will have a lot of pressure on them for those occasions when there are defensive breakdowns. Brian Elliott's overall numbers this year haven't been very good, but he's been amazing (1.28 GAA, .948 SV%) since returning from a couple of games in the AHL. If Elliott plays at a high level, the Blues could move on because while Kings G Jonathan Quick has been better in April (.917 SV%), his .902 SV% this season is worst among starting goaltenders in the playoffs.
The Pick: Blues in six.
Future Series Picks
Chicago over Detroit
St. Louis over Vancouver
Chicago over St. Louis
Pittsburgh over N.Y. Rangers
Boston over Montreal
Pittsburgh over Boston
Pittsburgh over Chicago
And, my list of playoff projections, obviously influenced by my team picks. If you have different picks -- and I'm sure many of you do -- do not follow my player picks to the letter; perhaps use the Playoff Payoff to find value on the teams you like best this spring.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.