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NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Round 1

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Short and sweet.

This year's 48-game season wasn't short on excitement or playoff races, as matchups were still being figured out on the last day of the season. The Pittsburgh Penguins in the East and the Chicago Blackhawks in the West enter as the popular favorites for the Cup, but will and unexpected team get hot at the right time, like last year's Los Angeles Kings?

As we get ready to take off on two months of the most entertaining hockey going, THN provides you with a breakdown on each first round matchup, with our prediction of which team will move on. Who do you think will win the Cup this season?

#1 PITTSBURGH vs. #8 NEW YORK ISLANDERS

How the Penguins win: Few teams come close to Pittsburgh’s firepower and depth. And GM Ray Shero fixed the main problem: a lack of physicality. The Penguins prided themselves on team toughness, but needed to reassess after they were manhandled last year by Philadelphia. Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla have beefed up the flanks and Douglas Murray has added meat on the back end. Now no one will push the Pens around.

How the Islanders win: To make it past the first round, much less sniff the Stanley Cup, requires Evgeni Nabokov to continue his April renaissance and a whole lot of team luck to displace a heavily favored higher seed. Resurrecting David Volek from 1993, however, is more likely than a championship rapture for Islanders fans.

How the Penguins lose: If Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is injured or Fleury has another post-season flameout. There’s no Jordan Staal to fill in for one of the team’s star centers and Tomas Vokoun has lost the only two playoff rounds of his career.

How the Islanders lose: Nabokov was mediocre the first three months of the season and New York was one of the league’s worst defensive teams before April 1. Then the Islanders fooled everybody and went on a 6-0-2 run, allowing no more than two goals in any game and just 10 total. Nabokov played in all of them, posting a 1.26 GAA and .948 SP.

Penguins goaltending: If Fleury fails, no one knows how Vokoun will do. Vokoun alternated between outstanding and awful. In January and March: 9-1-0, 1.55 GAA, .948 SP. In February and April: 2-3-0, 5.19 GAA, .827 SP.

Islanders goaltending: Nabokov has 80 games of playoff experience over nine post-seasons, getting to the second round five times and the conference final twice. The Isles need every bit of his wily veteran wit to pull any upsets.

Penguins question mark: Despite his team’s 26 goals in last year’s lone series against the Flyers, Fleury let in just as many, leaving him with a 4.63 GAA and .834 SP. Since winning the Cup in ’09, he’s won just one series out of four, going 12-14 with a 3.11 GAA and .880 SP.

Islanders question mark: John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic have zero playoff experience. How they fare dictates whether the Islanders have any chance of success.

Penguins top three fantasy players: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz

Islanders top three fantasy players: John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Brad Boyes

Odds to win the Cup: Penguins: 6-1, Islanders: 75-1.

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Winner and why: The way the Islanders have scratched and clawed their way into the post-season this year, it’s almost unfair to have them play the mighty Penguins. The Pens are demonstrably better than the Isles in virtually every area of the game and handled John Tavares & Co. with relative ease in the regular season. Upsets are always possible, but even without a return by Sidney Crosby, it would take a massive collapse by Pittsburgh to have this go any other way but a Pens series victory. Penguins in 5.

Who do you think will win the series?

#2 MONTREAL vs. #7 OTTAWA

How the Canadiens win: The Canadiens aren’t big, but they’re fast and dangerous. And when they use that speed to get to pucks first and win possession battles, they force their opponents to chase them. A renewed commitment to team defense has Montreal allowing among the fewest shots in the league.

How the Senators win: That’s a really good question. How exactly are these guys doing it? Well, it starts with out-of-this-world goaltending regardless of who’s wearing the pads in any given game. Then it branches out from there to a team that plays with such discipline and is on the puck so much that it can withstand the loss of its three best players for an extended period and remarkably remain in the playoff race.

How the Canadiens lose: Much of the Canadiens’ success has come from paying attention to details and playing a disciplined system that suffocates their opponents. When they stray from it even a little and lag in their work ethic, the way they did immediately after they secured a playoff spot, they fall apart. And when things blow up for this team, they blow up real good.

How the Senators lose: By not scoring goals – not enough of them and not at crucial moments. In their first 43 games, the Sens played 25 one-goal affairs. They won 10 and lost 15, six in overtime or a shootout. They have to work so hard to create offense that it often leaves them with little left to give at the end of close games.

Canadiens goaltending: Most believe Price will be just fine for the playoffs, but he’s the little boy with the curl. When he’s good, he’s really good and when he’s bad, well…If Price falters, the Canadiens have the comfort of knowing Peter Budaj has been excellent in relief.

Senators goaltending: In a word: outstanding. Through mid-April, the Senators were the third-worst team in the league in shots allowed per game with 32.3, but their GAA of 2.07 was second-best.

Canadiens question mark: Which Carey Price will show up: the steady, unflappable and technically perfect goalie who has emerged as the favorite for Canada’s Olympic team in 2014 or the one who looked porous in April?

Senators question mark: How can the Senators do any damage in the playoffs with one player in the top 100 in NHL scoring? That player is Cory Conacher, who had the majority of his points with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Canadiens top three fantasy players: P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Michael Ryder

Senators top three fantasy players: Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek, Kyle Turris

Odds to win the Cup: Canadiens: 18-1, Senators: 60-1

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Winner and why: The Canadiens won four more games than did Ottawa this year, but the Senators enter the playoffs a much hotter team than the Habs. With Montreal starter Carey Price struggling to regain his early-season form, Ottawa looks even better by comparison: both veteran Craig Anderson and backup Robin Lehner have been excellent. And the return of defenseman Erik Karlsson is a huge boost to Ottawa’s fortunes. The Sens are resilient, well-coached and are led by a number of grizzled veterans. If any No. 7 team is primed to upset, it’s Ottawa. Senators in 7.

Who do you think will win the series?

#3 WASHINGTON vs. #6 NEW YORK RANGERS

How the Capitals win: When Washington is allowed to breathe on offense, it wins. In their first 11 games, the Caps averaged 2.27 goals. Then their offense exploded and their average leapt to 3.21. It’s no coincidence they became contenders again when their flashy attack started to work like it did three or four years ago.

How the Rangers win: The Rangers have to flip the switch come playoff time, just like the Los Angeles Kings did last year. Their scorers have to suddenly wake up, their defense must stay stingy and, most importantly, Henrik Lundqvist has to be all-world.

How the Capitals lose: With such a free-flowing offense, the defense is sometimes lacking. The Caps allow among the most shots per game. Braden Holtby faced 30 or more shots 26 times in 31 starts. Putting that kind of demand on a young goalie is unhealthy during a post-season run.

How the Rangers lose: Bet on Lundqvist being sensational, but wager at your own risk if you think the Rangers find their scoring touch. Last post-season, they allowed only 26 goals in 14 games, but scored just 29. Shot-blocking and stellar goaltending go only so far.

Capitals goaltending: Holtby more than held his own in the playoffs last spring after spending most of the year in the American League. This year, his GAA is high because he faces so many shots. These Caps take a much different approach to defense and net protection and Holtby has to adapt.

Rangers goaltending: Expect Lundqvist to be as good as he was in the 2012 playoffs. If he’s felled by injury, Martin Biron is a capable backup, but hasn’t handled full-time duty or played a playoff game since 2008-09.

Capitals question mark: Every playoff team, including Washington, beat down the Southeast Division all season. But the Caps were below .500 against the rest of the East. Can they hang with the big boys?

Rangers question mark: Last year, the Rangers went into the playoffs with one elite goal-scorer, Marian Gaborik, after he recorded 41 in the regular season. Nash was brought in to add another. Now the Rangers could be back where they started after shipping Gaborik to Columbus, leaving Nash as their sole sniper. He’ll need support from the team’s lesser lights and there’s no guarantee he gets it.

Capitals top three fantasy players: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro

Rangers top three fantasy players: Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Brad Richards

Odds to win the Cup: Capitals: 12-1, Rangers: 20-1

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Winner and why: The Caps and Blueshirts were two of the hotter teams down the stretch and the franchises have grown familiar with each other, having faced off in three of the past four post-seasons. Washington has been carried by the white-hot play of star winger Alex Ovechkin, but he’ll be going up against a deep group of Rangers forwards and the usual top-shelf goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist. With good arguments to be made for either side, this looks to be a close series that will come down to who gets better goaltending. If that’s the case, we’re going with Lundqvist over the younger, less consistent Braden Holtby. Rangers in 7.

Who do you think will win the series?

#4 BOSTON vs. #5 TORONTO

How the Bruins win: When the Bruins play 60 minutes of disciplined, puck-control hockey, they are almost unbeatable. The key to much of their success is they’re the best faceoff team in the league, so they start with the puck. And because they have such big bodies with skill, they usually do a good job of hanging onto it.

How the Maple Leafs win: By rolling four lines that contribute and being a difficult opponent on most nights. Through mid-April, the Maple Leafs were leading the league in hits, blocked shots and fights. The penalty kill that has been the bane of their existence the past couple years was top-three in the league and their goaltending has improved significantly.

How the Bruins lose: Lapses in concentration and a strange inability to start games well often leave the Bruins fighting to get back into them. They have a more balanced attack than when they won the Cup two years ago, but their top players tend to go through long slumps. We’re talking about you, Milan Lucic.

How the Maple Leafs lose: When they lose their composure and discipline in terms of taking penalties and straying from their system. They go through long stretches where they get behind in games and have difficulty managing the puck in their own end. Late in the season, the Leafs led the league in giveaways by an enormous margin. Many of those are from their defensemen.

Bruins goaltending: Coach Claude Julien has never believed in overworking his No. 1 goalie during the regular season and that will benefit Tuukka Rask, who will taste his first real playoff experience in three years. The Bruins have supreme confidence in Rask’s clutch ability.

Maple Leafs goaltending: The Leafs were 27th in shots against. For the first time since Ed Belfour, they have goaltending good enough to push them into the playoffs.

Bruins question mark: The Bruins had the worst power play of any Stanley Cup winner when they captured the championship in 2011. Their play with the extra man is even worse this season. How can a team that can’t score on the power play go deep in the playoffs?

Maple Leafs question mark: How will the Leafs respond in the playoffs when fighting is virtually non-existent? They led the league in major penalties and were second in PIM, but will they be that tough when Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren spend much of the game on the bench?

Bruins top three fantasy players: Tyler Seguin, Jaromir Jagr, Brad Marchand

Maple Leafs top three fantasy players: Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul

Odds to win the Cup: Bruins: 11-1, Maple Leafs: 40-1

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Winner and why: The Maple Leafs won just one of four games against the Bruins this season and Boston has owned Toronto in the past few years. That said, the Leafs have narrowed the competitive gap of late and are a more physical team than the Bruins were accustomed to. Boston also is having a tough time producing offense and this will be Tuukka Rask’s first big playoff run as the Bruins’ clear-cut No. 1 netminder. Is an upset possible? The way Boston stumbled into the post-season (winning two of their final nine regular-season games), absolutely. Is it probable? We wouldn’t go that far. Toronto will have to prove they can play with the Bruins for extended stretches before anyone will expect them to. Bruins in 6.

Who do you think will win the series?

#1 CHICAGO vs. #8 MINNESOTA

How the Blackhawks win: With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, the Hawks can ice two first-line units every night. They boast plenty of youth and depth to support their stars, too. Rookie Brandon Saad keeps getting better, Dave Bolland saves his best for the playoffs and Andrew Shaw has the blend of scoring touch and snarl every team needs this time of year. Chicago was careful not to overwork Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and now has the luxury of playing its top two blueliners half the game during the playoffs. If not, Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy are there to eat minutes.

How the Wild win: The Wild added a lot of speed and skill the past couple seasons and the result has been a team that can not only gain the zone, but control the puck, cycle and create scoring chances. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are A-list players who lead by example and are true difference-makers.

How the Blackhawks lose: The Hawks’ power play was weak for such a talented squad, ranking 21st at 15.9 percent. They’ll find themselves in too many close games if they don’t make opponents pay with the man advantage.

How the Wild lose: Suter can’t play 60 minutes a game and beyond him the ‘D’ is susceptible to bigger, more rugged competition. Even with its newfound offense, Minnesota scores three or more goals just half the time, leaving little margin for defensive mistakes.

Blackhawks goaltending: Corey Crawford and Ray Emery each posted a GAA below 2.00 and SP above .920. One of them will give Chicago the goaltending it needs.

Wild goaltending: goaltending One thing that hasn’t changed in Minnesota despite a made-over roster is that the Wild ebb and flow more than ever on the performance of Niklas Backstrom. When the pending UFA is on, the Wild look unbeatable. That there’s no proven support behind the 35-year-old is a little disconcerting.

Blackhawks question mark: Chicago has trouble keeping its scorers healthy. Sharp and Hossa missed time with injuries and often get nicked as quickly as they return.

Wild question mark: The loss of Dany Heatley with a season-ending shoulder injury leaves a hole in the lineup only partially filled by newcomer Jason Pominville. Though he’s no longer a 50-goal man, Heatley’s presence on the ice helped spread out the defense.

Blackhawks top three fantasy players: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa

Wild top three fantasy players: Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu

Odds to win the Cup: Blackhawks: 5-1, Wild: 25-1

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Winner and why: The Wild’s reward for securing their first playoff berth in five years is a first round date with the team that has undisputedly been the best in the league from start to finish. The Wild are the only team in this year’s playoffs that allowed more goals than it scored and that inability to produce offense consistently will be their undoing. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, have given no indication that they’re poised to become first-round fodder. This is the easiest pick of the Western Conference. Blackhawks in 5.

Who do you think will win the series?

#2 ANAHEIM vs. #7 DETROIT

How the Ducks win: The Ducks have been one of the most offensively potent teams in the NHL, relying on three solid units up front and getting different heroes every night. A dozen Ducks have double-digit point totals, including Kyle Palmieri and Daniel Winnik.

How the Red Wings win: These aren’t the powerhouse Red Wings of the past two decades, but they still can skate circles around their competition. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula, Damien Brunner and Johan Franzen lead a skilled forward group that exploits slow-footed defenders. Detroit’s blueline is getting healthy at the right time and the Niklas Kronwall-led unit has a nice mix of size and mobility.

How the Ducks lose: This may sound basic, but when they don’t score. Anaheim’s offense dried up for spells, though never long enough to do damage. Come playoff time, however, that could mean the difference between moving on and heading home.

How the Red Wings lose: The Wings have been ousted from the playoffs for the same reason three straight years: a bigger, tougher team bullied them. Their forwards lack brawn, even with Jordin Tootoo on board.

Ducks goaltending: Anaheim seems to trip over great goalies on recruiting jaunts. The latest is Swedish vet Viktor Fasth, who presided over the Ducks’ excellent run at the opening of the season and kept the party going, sitting just outside the top 10 in GAA. Fasth platooned with Jonas Hiller, giving the Ducks two great options.

Red Wings goaltending: Detroit was confident enough in Jimmy Howard to sign him to a six-year extension. His regular season numbers (127-66-25, 2.39 GAA, .917 SP) warrant the term, but he hasn’t been nearly as good in the playoffs. He posted an .888 SP in the first round versus Nashville last season.

Ducks question mark: Anaheim had 52 minutes more on the penalty kill than on the man advantage as the season came to a

Red Wings question mark: Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith, Carlo Colaiacovo and Danny DeKeyser were key components of the ‘D’ late in the season. That group has 11 career playoff games, all belonging to Colaiacovo.

Ducks top three fantasy players: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan.

Red Wings top three fantasy players: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen.

Odds to win the Cup: Ducks: 12-1, Red Wings: 22-1.

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Winner and why: Even though 10 points separated them in the standings, there might not be two teams that are more evenly matched than the Ducks and the Red Wings in the first round. During the regular season, each team registered one blowout victory before the Red Wings defeated the Ducks 2-1. Both teams have Cup-winning experience throughout their lineups and elite, high-end forwards who can be difference makers. Red Wings in 7.

Who do you think will win the series?

#3 VANCOUVER vs. #6 SAN JOSE

How the Canucks win: Even when the Sedins don’t dominate, they still generate offense and are difficult to shut down for extended periods. What really puts the Canucks over the top is when they get that second wave of offense, whether it be from the returning Ryan Kesler, newcomer Derek Roy or the surprisingly productive Jannik Hansen, Mason Raymond or Chris Higgins.

How the Sharks win: Largely by details. The Sharks are the NHL’s No. 2 faceoff team and block a ton of shots. They’ve been excellent on the penalty kill and Antti Niemi has put up Vezina-worthy numbers in net. Through mid-April they had just one regulation loss at home.

How the Canucks lose: Vancouver’s power play was among the league’s top six each of the past three seasons. So to see it 22nd (15.8 percent) and worst among locked-down playoff teams is a big reason why the Canucks didn’t challenge for the Presidents’ Trophy.

How the Sharks lose: Scoring has been a battle for San Jose, which struggled so much it moved mobile defenseman Brent Burns to right wing to shake things up. The switch yielded nice results, but underscored the problems inherent with a top-heavy team.

Canucks goaltending: Despite playing just three games in a month, Roberto Luongo looked sharp in relief duty. That bodes well should ace starter Cory Schneider come up flat in consecutive games. As always, the leash will be short in the Vancouver crease.

Sharks goaltending: Hidden on a good-but-not-great team in northern California, Niemi has been incredible, posting top-10 numbers in GAA and SP while playing more minutes than anyone in the league. He has a Cup from his days in Chicago and has lost just two playoff series versus six triumphs in his young career.

Canucks question mark: Vancouver’s big four on the blueline eat a lot of minutes, but there’s a drop off in effectiveness to the third pair. And each of Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Jason Garrison and Dan Hamhuis have had injury issues the past couple of seasons.

Sharks question mark: For years the Sharks have been the Big Team That Couldn’t. After trading staples Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe at the deadline with Raffi Torres and Scott Hannan arriving in separate deals, the Fins have a new look, but will it help them finally break through to the Stanley Cup?

Canucks top three fantasy players: Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler.

Sharks top three fantasy players: Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau

Odds to win the Cup: Vancouver: 10-1, San Jose: 20-1.

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Winner and why: This is a series that not only features two evenly matched teams that sputtered down the stretch, but it also pits two of the league’s more underachieving teams against one another. Neither team has played with a lot of consistency this season and while both are capable of getting on a roll, things can also snowball in the other direction pretty quickly. The key to this series could be the extent to which Canucks goalie Cory Schneider is injured. Sharks in 7.

Who do you think will win the series?

#4 ST. LOUIS vs. #5 LOS ANGELES

How the Blues win: The Blues boast a plethora of behemoth forwards who have scoring touch, like David Backes, the reborn Chris Stewart and Patrik Berglund. Their D-core is just as big. Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Barret Jackman and Roman Polak are built for the rigors of playoff hockey. Because St. Louis has so much size, it does a phenomenal job stopping pucks from reaching its net. Over the past three seasons, the Blues ranked second, first and second in shots against.

How the Kings win: The Kings blew past the competition to earn last year’s Stanley Cup. Their depth and two-way play is at the center of their success. Not only does Los Angeles boast responsible yet offensively skilled forwards like Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Dustin Brown, but the team also has two fantastic, offensively inclined blueliners in Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov.

How the Blues lose: Unless Vladimir Tarasenko wakes up, the Blues have nothing close to a point-per-game player. They arguably boast two second lines instead of a bona fide first line. That’s a problem in the playoffs when goals are harder to come by.

How the Kings lose: Focus has been a bugaboo for the defending champs. The Kings started poorly and were routed several times. Goalie Jonathan Quick has been more fallible than he was during his Conn Smythe run.

Blues goaltending: If Brian Elliott plays like he did in April, when he had three straight shutouts, the Blues are fine, even with Jaroslav Halak hurt. But that’s a big if.

Kings goaltending: Quick was nearly flawless en route to L.A.’s first Cup win, so it’s hard to fault him for regressing, especially since he had major back surgery in the summer. His stats have taken a big step back now, with a save percentage teetering around .900.

Blues question mark: Tarasenko had five goals and 10 points in his first eight games, but three goals and seven points in his next 24. He must learn how to elude NHL checking and improve defensively to earn more ice time. If so, he’ll re-emerge as St. Louis’ X-factor.

Kings question mark: Dustin Penner upped his game dramatically in last year’s playoffs, adding 11 points in 20 games to the cause. He had just 12 in his 29 games this season, which included a streak of healthy scratches. The big man also struggled last season, so does he just save his best efforts for the playoffs?

Blues top three fantasy players: Chris Stewart, David Backes, Alexander Steen.

Kings top three fantasy players: Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards

Odds to win the Cup: St. Louis: 15-1, Los Angeles: 12-1.

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Winner and why: The difference in this series could simply be that the Kings are battle-tested and the Blues are not. The Kings are more explosive offensively, but the Blues are a little more deep and can produce more from the blueline. One thing is certain: This will be a very difficult, very grinding series where the participants will have to battle for every inch of the ice. You have to wonder whether the winner of this series will have enough left to go much further in the playoffs. Kings in 7.

Who do you think will win the series?

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