Philadelphia, PA – The lockout may have robbed us of nearly half a regular season, but thankfully the playoffs remain intact.
After spending months and months haggling over a new collective bargaining agreement, the NHL rewarded its loyal fan base with a rushed regular season that, if nothing else, was an exciting sprint to the playoffs.
The postseason marks a return to normalcy for the NHL after the lockout forced an unforgiving schedule on its' teams and fans. Now that the playoffs are upon us, however, the action will be more spaced out and hopefully that will lead to sharper play this spring.
Two NHL teams did look extremely sharp from early on, as the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins respectively ran away with the Western and Eastern Conference's top seeds. But, will those teams find the playoffs to be as easy a ride as the regular season? After all, the last time the Stanley Cup Finals featured the top-seeded clubs from each conference was in 2001, when the Colorado Avalanche beat the New Jersey Devils.
One thing we do know is there will be a new Eastern Conference champion this spring, because New Jersey failed to qualify for the playoffs. On the other hand, the Los Angeles Kings will be back to try and defend their Western Conference and Stanley Cup titles. Of course, no team has repeated as Cup champions since Detroit won back-to-back titles in 1997 and '98.
That's just a few of the storylines heading into the playoffs, so let's take a glance at each series to see what the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs have in store.
(1) Pittsburgh vs. (8) NY Islanders
Few people would argue a healthy Sidney Crosby is a must if Pittsburgh wants to win it all this spring, but the Penguins don't need Sid the Kid to beat the eighth-seeded Islanders, do they?
Considering the Penguins went 8-4 in April while their captain and star forward sat out the entire month with a fractured jaw, this loaded Pittsburgh team definitely is capable of surviving this series without Crosby.
And with Crosby having returned to practice, there's a good chance he'll be back at some point in the first round anyway. Until he does, guys like Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Kris Letang are more than capable of holding down the fort.
For the Islanders, who are in the postseason for the first time since 2007, this is a "happy to be there" situation. The club boasts one of the league's biggest rising stars in centerman John Tavares, but even minus Crosby, the Pens will smother the Isles with their superior depth.
Penguins in 5
(2) Montreal vs. (7) Ottawa
Although the Canadiens are seeded five spots higher than the Senators, the clubs were separated by only seven points in the standings. Still, Montreal deserves credit for winning an extremely competitive race for the Northeast Division title, but the Habs know all too well that Ottawa is a very dangerous seventh seed.
This will be the first playoff meeting between these divisional foes and each team won two games during this year's season series. The home team won all four encounters, meaning Montreal's home-ice edge could come in handy before this series is decided.
Ottawa was a low-scoring team this season, but also ranked second in team defense. With dynamic defenseman Erik Karlsson recently returned from a severe cut to his Achilles that caused him miss two months, the Senators will be more difficult to deal with than they were for most of the season.
Montreal has an extremely talented defenseman of its own in P.K. Subban, who this postseason will try to build off his best campaign as an NHLer.
However, one big concern for the Habs is the recent play of goaltender Carey Price. The 25-year-old stumbled towards the end of the regular season and he has an 8-15 career record and 2.84 goals against average in the playoffs. If Ottawa can get to Price early in this series and shatter his confidence, the Canadiens, who haven't won a playoff series since the spring of 1993, will be headed to another first-round exit.
Senators in 6
(3) Washington vs. (6) NY Rangers
They say familiarity breeds contempt. If that is true, there's a really good chance the Capitals and Rangers don't care for each other.
Washington and New York are meeting in the playoffs for the fourth time in five postseasons and for the eighth time since 1986. This is also the third straight spring to feature a playoff battle between the clubs after the Rangers downed the Caps in seven games during last year's conference semifinals.
The Rangers were the top seed in 2012, but the seventh-seeded Capitals gave them all they could handle. This year it's Washington holding the higher seed and home-ice advantage, even if the Rangers only finished one point behind the Southeast Division champions in the East standings.
Washington is led, of course, by Alex Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 32 goals and practically willed the Caps to the playoffs by himself in the second half of the season. The Rangers, meanwhile, use more of an all hands on deck approach on offense, although the arrival of Rick Nash last offseason gives New York a legitimate top-notch scorer.
The Rangers should have the edge in overall team depth and Henrik Lundqvist, last year's Vezina Trophy winner, gives New York a clear advantage between the pipes.
If this matchup is anything like last year, it will be a low-scoring series, and one New York is better equipped to win.
Rangers in 6
(4) Boston vs. (5) Toronto
These old Original Six rivals have been connected in recent years due to the infamous trade that sent sniper Phil Kessel from Boston to Toronto.
Prior to the 2009-10 season, the Maple Leafs acquired Kessel for a big price, sending two first-round picks and a second-rounder to the Bruins for the young winger. The deal came after Toronto's fourth straight playoff absence and three more years out of the playoffs came and went before Kessel and the Leafs were able to end the drought this season.
Boston, of course, won the Stanley Cup in 2011, making it fairly clear Kessel wasn't the key to the franchise's success. The fact that the draft picks the Bruins received from Toronto turned into big-time prospects like Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton is just the icing on the cake.
The Bruins are minus goaltender Tim Thomas this season, as the two-time Vezina Trophy winner and Conn Smythe recipient in 2011 sat this season out due to personal reasons. However, Tuukka Rask filled in nicely as the No. 1 and Boston ended the regular season with the third-best defense in the league.
Toronto will need a big series from Kessel, as well as forwards Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri to solve Zdeno Chara and the formidable Boston defense, but that will prove to be a difficult task for a team without a great deal of playoff experience.
Bruins in 6
(1) Chicago vs. (8) Minnesota
With a 36-7-5 record and an NHL-best goal differential of plus-53, the top- seeded Blackhawks would've entered the postseason as heavy favorites against whichever team they met in the first round.
Considering Minnesota's lack of depth compared to this loaded Chicago club, there's a good chance this series will be over in a hurry.
Chicago busted out of the gates with an NHL-record 24-game point streak (21-0-3) and from there cruised to its first Central Division title since 2009-10, when the Blackhawks secured the franchise's first Stanley Cup title in nearly half a century. After salary-cap constraints caused that recent championship squad to lose some key pieces, the Blackhawks finally seem back to top form.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 after re-loading last offseason with the dual signings of free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts.
While the addition of Parise to the top line and Suter to the defense certainly improved Minnesota, the Wild simply do not have the horses to keep up with the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and the rest of Chicago's loaded roster.
Barring a lights-out performance from Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who is 3-8 lifetime in playoff games, this will be a short-lived return to the postseason for Minnesota.
Blackhawks in 5
(2) Anaheim vs. (7) Detroit
The Ducks turned in the franchise's best season since winning their one and only Stanley Cup title in 2006-07, surprising their way to a Pacific Division title and the second seed in the West.
Although the division crown came with relative ease, Anaheim did wobble a bit down the stretch and it appears seventh-seeded Detroit has an opportunity to pull off the upset in Round 1. That is, if you don't mind calling a team that's made the playoffs in 22 straight seasons an underdog.
Playing in their first season since the retirement of legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, the Red Wings did manage to keep their epic postseason streak alive, but the seventh-place finish in the West gives the club its worst seeding since it last missed the postseason in 1989-90, when they finished ninth.
The Ducks have a solid group of top forwards, with playmaking centerman Ryan Getzlaf and sniper Corey Perry leading the way. Bobby Ryan and ageless wonder Teemu Selanne also help give Anaheim the edge in the arms race against the Red Wings, who boast Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg up front and not much else.
Anaheim played a balanced brand of hockey under Bruce Boudreau this season, finishing eighth in the NHL in team offense with 2.79 goals per game and placing ninth in defense with an average of 2.40 goals surrendered.
The Red Wings entered the postseason on a high note thanks to four straight wins to complete their schedule, but Anaheim should have the upper hand in this series. Expect the Ducks' top-two lines to wear down Detroit's defense over the course of the series, as Anaheim grinds out a first-round win.
Ducks in 7
(3) Vancouver vs. (6) San Jose
The Canucks won their fifth straight Northwest Division title this spring, but unlike previous years there's little mention of Vancouver as a serious Cup contender.
The aging club made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 and lost to the Bruins in seven games, but was bounced out of the playoffs by Los Angeles in last year's first round.
However, the Canucks still are led by twin forwards Daniel and Henrik Sedin and the club has a deep blue line and a pair of solid goaltenders in Corey Schneider and Roberto Luongo. The only difference is Schneider is now the No. 1 netminder after too many years of Luongo coming up small in the playoffs.
What that adds up to is probably enough to beat the Sharks, who themselves are no strangers to underachieving in the playoffs, but not nearly enough to make a serious run at a Cup.
San Jose is led on offense by aging centerman Joe Thornton and up-and-coming sniper Logan Couture. Other familiar faces like Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski and Brian Boyle are also in tow, but at this point the Sharks seem closer to a rebuilding phase than a deep run in the playoffs.
However, the Sharks did win all three games in the regular-season series and this is looking like it could be the closest series in the opening round.
Canucks in 7
(4) St. Louis vs. (5) Los Angeles
St. Louis has to be pleased it's made the playoffs for a second straight year, but the Blues can't be thrilled about drawing the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round.
The Blues cruised to a Central Division title in 2011-12 and breezed to a five-game opening-round win over San Jose before running into the eighth- seeded Los Angeles Kings, who swept the Blues out of the playoffs in convincing fashion. The Blues were exposed by the Kings in last spring's conference semifinals encounter, getting outscored by a 15-6 margin in the four losses.
This season's series did little to change perceptions of this matchup, as L.A. won all three encounters and scored at least four goals in each meeting.
Although this season the Kings have not quite resembled last year's playoff juggernaut, all the same pieces that made up the 2012 squad are still in place, including reigning Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick. Quick hasn't played nearly as well this season in net as he did last spring when he went 16-4 with a 1.41 GAA, .946 save percentage and three shutouts. Quick wound up with an 18-13-4 record in 37 games this season and recorded a 2.45 GAA and .902 save percentage.
Despite Quick's down season, L.A. still managed to play a balanced game in 2013, as the club ranked seventh in team defense (2.38 goals allowed per game) and 10th in offense with 2.73 goals per contest. The team's offensive numbers were a big improvement from 2011-12, when L.A. was 29th in the NHL with just 2.29 goals per game.
Plain and simple, this is not a good matchup for the Blues. Expect them to put a better effort against the Kings than they did last spring, but not by much.
Kings in 5