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Your Guide to the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Breaking down the first round of the NHL postseason

“We’ve got to roll four lines.”

Expect to hear a lot of that in the next few weeks during the Stanley Cup playoffs, which open tonight. This time of year, every coach is overcome by an almost fanatical desire to roll four lines. And they’ll be quite happy to tell you all about it, even if that’s not the question you asked.

We figured that if it was good enough for the playoff teams, it should be good enough for a playoff preview. So for each series, we’re going to roll four lines, too — by using one sentence to break down the old-school narrative, the fancy stats indicators, the key question, and a player to watch. (And we even got some graphics help from Dan Gustafson of 16 Wins.)

Will we really be able to analyze complex playoff matchups using single sentences? Of course! Will we use cheap punctuation tricks to make that happen? Almost undoubtedly. Footnotes, too? Maybe.1

Let’s get started quickly, before the first night of games comes along and leaves all our predictions in ruins.

Central Division

The Central was probably the NHL’s best division, producing three of the league’s top seven teams. It was also the only division to send five teams to the playoffs; the Dallas Stars will temporarily shift over to the Pacific as a wild-card team.

No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 3 Chicago Blackhawks

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Thursday night in St. Louis

Season series: The Blues took the first three meetings (two of them in shootouts), but the Blackhawks beat them twice in the season’s final weeks.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative
The Blues are in free fall,2 collapsing under the weight of their season-long status as Stanley Cup favorites, and now face a humiliating first-round exit at the hands of the defending champs.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …
The Blues’ losing streak has been driven largely by PDO, so it’s no great cause for concern — but a matchup with the Blackhawks and their excellent 55.2 percent Fenwick sure is.3

Line no. 3: The key question
How could a Blues team that was fourth in the league in goals scored on April 1 manage to score just seven times in its final eight games?

Line no. 4: One player to watch
It’s not a hard pick here: The Blues paid a ransom to acquire goalie Ryan Miller with the expectation that he’d be the final piece in their Stanley Cup puzzle, and now it looks like they’ll need him to win this series.

Prediction: Miller gets it done, the Blues win in six, and everyone goes back to considering them Cup favorites.

No. 1 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 4 Minnesota Wild

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Thursday night in Colorado

Season series: Colorado took four of five, including all three that ended before the shootout.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative
The Avalanche were a young team drifting without direction until Patrick Roy showed up and sprayed a winning attitude all over the dressing room like a shaggy dog shaking off bathwater.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …
It’s hard to overstate how much the analytics crowd hates the Avalanche, a terrible possession team that’s spent the whole year riding unsustainable percentages and would have been eaten alive by the Blackhawks if the Blues hadn’t collapsed.4

Line no. 3: The key question
The Avalanche are an inexperienced team that’s spent most of the season having the breaks go their way, so how will they respond the first time they get punched in the mouth in the playoffs?

Line no. 4: One player to watch
Ryan Suter spent almost 200 more minutes on the ice than any other player in the league, and against the high-flying Avalanche he may play well more than 30 minutes every night.

Prediction: The Avs win in five, earning the right to have literally everyone on the planet pick them to lose their second-round matchup with the winner of the Blues-Hawks series.

Pacific Division

It’s hard to really get a handle on the Pacific. On the one hand, it includes a trio of legitimate Cup contenders in the three California teams. On the other, those are the only three playoff teams the Pacific produced, making it the only division that isn’t sending at least four to the postseason.

The key story line for most of the season was the battle for the first seed. In the end, the Ducks took that title and earned a theoretically easy meeting with the wild-card Stars, leaving the Sharks and Kings to face each other in what should be the first round’s best matchup.

No. 2 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Kings

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Thursday night in San Jose

Season series: The Kings took three out of five, including both games in L.A.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative
San Jose was the better team in the regular season, but the Kings are two years removed from a championship and know how to win in the playoffs, while the Sharks have never been able to figure that out.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …
You could make a solid case that the Kings and Sharks are the two best teams in the league, and it’s kind of a shame that one will be out in the first round.

Line no. 3: The key question
If this matchup is as much of a war as we all expect it to be, can either team emerge with enough ammo left to remain a serious Stanley Cup threat with three more series to play?

Line no. 4: One player to watch
Tomas Hertl was the talk of the league before a December knee injury appeared to end his season;5 he returned to the Sharks lineup last week and should be back at full speed for the series.

Prediction: It’s the best series of the first round, and the Sharks take it in seven.

No. 1 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 4 Dallas Stars

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Tonight in Anaheim

Season series: The Stars took two of three, and were one of only two teams all year to shut out the Ducks.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative
The young Stars have been a nice story in the first year of a franchise reconstruction, but it won’t end well against a powerhouse Ducks team that’s packed with skill and leadership and expects to make a serious run at the Cup.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …
The Ducks aren’t who you think they are — they’re basically a break-even possession team that has been riding a league-leading PDO to an inflated spot in the standings.

Line no. 3: The key question
Can Dallas star Tyler Seguin rebuild his playoff reputation after a disappointing 2013 postseason helped pave his road out of Boston?

Line no. 4: One player to watch
Veteran defenseman Stephane Robidas moved from Dallas to Anaheim at the trade deadline, and will now be asked to play a key role against his old team in the playoffs.

Prediction: Federal law mandates that every set of first-round predictions include at least one 1-seed upset, so here we go: Stars in seven.

Atlantic Division

The Atlantic was the division of extremes; it produced both the Presidents’ Trophy winner and the league’s two worst teams, and nobody could ever quite figure out any of the teams in between. In the end, we’re left with three Original Six franchises with plenty of Stanley Cup history between them, and one underdog that nobody expected to be here.

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 3 Montreal Canadiens

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Tonight in Tampa Bay

Season series: The Lightning won three out of four, with only one game being settled in regulation.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative
The storied Habs head into the postseason carrying the hopes of an entire nation; for the first time since 1973, there will be only one Canadian team in the playoffs.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …
Montreal is one of just three teams with a sub–50 percent Fenwick to make it to the playoffs, while Tampa Bay ranked in the top 10, ahead of teams like Pittsburgh and Anaheim.

Line no. 3: The key question
Is Ben Bishop, the Lightning goalie and team MVP who missed the last week of the regular season after suffering an arm injury, healthy enough to be at his best?

Line no. 4: One player to watch
Ryan Callahan has been a bit of a forgotten man in Tampa Bay since arriving in a trade that cost the Lightning reigning Art Ross winner Martin St. Louis, but the former Rangers captain has a reputation for being the sort of player who excels in a tough series.

Prediction: A Habs-Bruins second-round matchup would be absolutely incredible, and under the hockey gods’ strict “the matchup you’re most excited for will never actually happen” policy, that means it’s going to be Lightning in seven.

No. 1 Boston Bruins vs. No. 4 Detroit Red Wings

sc-round1_bos_det_fea

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Friday in Boston, per the league’s rule that one series always has to start later than everyone else just to throw off the schedule

Season series: After losing in Boston on opening weekend, the Wings won three straight against the Bruins to take the season series.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative
A Red Wings roster decimated by injury somehow clawed its way back into the playoffs by relying on sheer force of will and pride, and will now stare down a heavily favored Bruins team that better not be expecting an easy fight.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …
The Red Wings are a good team, but they’re facing a Bruins squad that boasts a deadly combination: a roster full of possession monsters backed up by an elite goaltender.

Line no. 3: The key question
Now that Pavel Datsyuk is back in the lineup and looking stronger, will Henrik Zetterberg be ready to join him?6

Line no. 4: One player to watch
Detroit sensation Gustav Nyquist has taken the league by storm, but lots of guys have looked unstoppable right up until they ran into the Bergeron-Chara-Rask trinity.

Prediction
The games are tight and hard-fought, but the Bruins are just too good and win a short series.

Metropolitan Division

Oh, Metro Division, you brought us such joy for most of the season. From your ridiculous name to your terrible first few months, you were the leaguewide punch line that kept on giving.

But by the end of the season, the Metro had largely erased its loser reputation, boasting five 90-plus-point teams and sending four to the playoffs. And while we spent all year assuming the Penguins would have an easy time rolling to the Eastern Conference final, that doesn’t seem like such a sure thing anymore.

No. 2 New York Rangers vs. No. 3 Philadelphia Flyers

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Whenever NBC damn well says it will (which in this case is Thursday night in New York)

Season series: They split the season series, with all four of those games won by the home team.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative
Both teams suffered through a disastrous first month before righting their ships as the season went on, thanks to grit, leadership, and gritty leadership.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …
This matchup isn’t really as close as you might think: The Rangers rank fifth among playoff teams in Fenwick percentage, while the Flyers are 15th.

Line no. 3: The key question
There’s no debating which team has the goaltending edge on paper, but just how big will the gap between Steve Mason7 and Henrik Lundqvist end up being?

Line no. 4: One player to watch
After a slow start, Claude Giroux spent the last three-quarters of the season outscoring everyone not named Sidney Crosby and reestablishing himself as part of that “best player in the world” conversation.

Prediction: The Rangers win a hard-fought series in six.

No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 4 Columbus Blue Jackets

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Tonight in Pittsburgh

Season series: The Penguins ran the table, winning all five matchups in regulation (though only one of those came in the season’s second half).

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative
The Blue Jackets have never even won a playoff game,8 which makes them a great underdog story, but it also puts them at serious risk of coming down with a deadly case of “just happy to be there” syndrome.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …
Despite their 109 points, the Penguins are a top-heavy team that gets killed possession-wise whenever the big stars aren’t out there, and they shouldn’t be considered a truly elite team.

Line no. 3: The key question
Can Sergei Bobrovsky, who’s quietly had a very good season after last year’s Vezina win, play the role of first-round goalie who stands on his head and steals a series?

Line no. 4: One player to watch
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury just finished what may well be the best regular season of his career, and none of it will matter if he struggles in the playoffs like he has in each of the past four years.

Prediction: A vulnerable Penguins team falls victim to a shocking upset — in Round 2, after surviving a tougher-than-expected series against the Blue Jackets in six. 

Filed Under: NHL, NHL Playoffs, Hockey, Dan Gustafson, sean mcindoe, Columbus Blue Jackets, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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