Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Unless you were pulling hard for a repeat champion, the field for the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs gives hockey fans many reasons to be excited.
The fact that the Los Angeles Kings failed to make the postseason and won't get a chance to defend their crown was surprising. However, when you consider only 16 points separated the teams in the playoff field, it makes a little more sense. You would have to go back to the 1964-65 campaign to find a smaller gap separating the top from the bottom and that's when only four teams qualified for the postseason.
There also is no shortage of new blood in this spring's postseason tournament as the league experienced a record amount of turnover from 2014 to 2015. Seven teams made the playoffs this season after missing out a year ago, setting a new mark for the largest year-to-year change in NHL history. The previous record of six was last achieved following the 2009-10 season.
Two of the new faces in the 2015 postseason ended rather lengthy playoff droughts. The Calgary Flames are in the mix for the first time since 2009, while the Winnipeg Jets made their first postseason since the franchise relocated from Atlanta prior to the 2011-12 season. The club's previous incarnation, the Atlanta Thrashers, made their one and only trip to the playoffs in 2007.
With the Kings out of the conversation, the New York Rangers seem to be the leading candidate to inherit the throne. Not only are the Blueshirts the defending Eastern Conference champions, but they also cruised to the NHL's best record during the regular season. Of course, the Chicago Blackhawks, Cup winners in 2010 and '13, may have something to say about New York's favorite status before the season ends a few months from now.
Also, being the favorite before the playoffs begin doesn't guarantee a team anything. Upsets are common on the road to the Stanley Cup and the Blackhawks, Rangers or other vaunted teams could be ousted in surprising fashion.
Without further ado, here are some picks for the opening round of the playoffs:
N.Y. RANGERS VS. PITTSBURGH
Rangers boast a balanced attack and plenty of speed up front. At the back end, they own a deep array of blueliners and the presence of star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes.
Pittsburgh has all-world centermen in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but little depth. Missing top defenseman Kris Letang, who is sidelined indefinitely due to a concussion, will not help the Penguins deal with the Rangers. In fact, the Pens are fortunate to even be in the playoffs after nearly missing out on the festivities thanks to a lackluster 4-9-2 record in their final 15 games.
The Penguins blew a 3-1 lead en route to losing to the Rangers in seven games during last year's conference semifinals. New York shouldn't have to work as hard to overcome Pittsburgh this time.
Rangers in 5
MONTREAL VS. OTTAWA
The Senators needed a 21-3-3 season-ending run just to make the playoffs. Now, Ottawa and its goaltender Andrew Hammond, who was previously unknown to most of the hockey world, have to prove themselves all over again in the playoffs.
Hammond, better known as the "Hamburglar," had never started a game at the NHL level until February and then went on to finish the regular season with a 20-1-2 record to help anchor Ottawa's run to the playoffs. In this series, he'll go up against Montreal's Carey Price, who is widely considered to be the best goaltender in the world and coming off a regular season that could land him both the Vezina and Hart Trophies.
Montreal relied on Price too much during its run to an Atlantic Division title. The offense was hardly impressive with leading scorer Max Pacioretty in the lineup and now that Pacioretty is dealing with a concussion that will cause him to miss at least Game 1, the Sens could be ready to pull off a major upset.
Senators in 7
TAMPA BAY VS. DETROIT
The Lightning were swept by Montreal last season, but they had a good excuse for the postseason meltdown as No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop missed the entire series due to a wrist injury.
Bishop is healthy for the first round in 2015 and the Lightning have improved their scoring depth tremendously since last spring. The Bolts still rely on star centerman Steven Stamkos to do the heavy lifting on offense, but he does have more help in that regard than he did earlier in his career.
Detroit has a great coach in Mike Babcock and the club deserves kudos for making it to the playoffs for a 24th straight season. The problem for Detroit is outside of aging forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, it doesn't seem to have enough talent to hang with the young and improving Lightning.
Lightning in 6
WASHINGTON VS. N.Y. ISLANDERS
There's a good chance this Metropolitan Division battle will be the most tightly contested series of the opening round.
The Caps and Isles each won two games during four meetings in 2014-15 and three of the contests went beyond regulation. In this best-of-seven matchup, the winner is likely to be the team that gets better goaltending. Braden Holtby hopes to win that battle for the Capitals over Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
The other head-to-head matchup everyone will be looking at is Washington's Alex Ovechkin vs. New York's John Tavares. Ovechkin is the most dangerous goal scorer in the world, but Tavares is the better all-around player and one who does a better job than Ovechkin of making everyone around him better.
Expect this series to produce more than one OT battle and for Tavares' Isles to come out on top by the slimmest of margins.
Islanders in 7
ANAHEIM VS. WINNIPEG
Since Bruce Boudreau took over the head coaching duties in Anaheim during the 2011-12 campaign, the Ducks have become a team which tears through the regular season before bowing out in the playoffs way earlier than expected.
Winnipeg is hoping to continue that trend this season. The Jets are a big team with speed to burn and it's not crazy to think they can make this series interesting.
However, Anaheim should be able to sneak by because Winnipeg has no real answer to stop the combination of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the top line. The added depth of two-way forward Ryan Kesler, who was acquired in a trade with Vancouver last summer to be the second-line center behind Getzlaf, also should pay dividends in this series.
The Ducks also could be playing to save Boudreau's job in this series because there is a good chance the coach won't be back next season if they wind up being upset victims versus Winnipeg.
Ducks in 7
ST. LOUIS VS. MINNESOTA
Like Hammond did for Ottawa, Devan Dubnyk saved Minnesota's season with a stellar run between the pipes in the second half. Unlike Hammond, Dubnyk was a former first-round pick known to hockey fans as a bust before his star-making turn with the Wild.
Dubnyk made 38 straight starts for the Wild after coming over in a trade with Arizona on Jan. 14. He went 27-8-2 in that span with a 1.73 goals against average, .938 save percentage and five shutouts. However, Dubnyk has never tasted playoff hockey at either the NHL or AHL levels and he'll have something to prove in this series.
St. Louis, meanwhile, is in a similar situation as Anaheim. Ken Hitchcock coached the team to another spectacular regular season, but the Blues are coming off first-round exits in each of the last two springs.
However, the Blues are still a relatively young team and this could be the postseason in which they finally put things together for a deep run. Getting by Dubnyk will be no easy task, but expect St. Louis to avoid the upset.
Blues in 7
NASHVILLE VS. CHICAGO
Earlier this season, the Predators seemed destined to not only win the Central Division, but also looked like they would challenge for the best record in the league. In the end, they'll settle for a second-place finish in the division and home-ice advantage in this series.
Peter Laviolette's first campaign as head coach in Nashville resulted in a trip to the playoffs, but it could be a short one if the club can't halt its late-season struggles. The Preds went 0-4-2 over their final six games and 8-13-4 in the past 25.
Chicago is an underdog in seeding only and the return of Patrick Kane actually makes the Blackhawks an even bigger favorite to knock off Nashville.
The Blackhawks originally believed they'd have to go deep into the playoffs before getting Kane back on the ice after he suffered a broken clavicle in late February, but he is ready to play in Game 1. The high-scoring winger last played on Feb. 24, but still finished second in the club with 27 goals and 64 points.
Chicago boasts a deep offense with captain Jonathan Toews, veterans Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, and youngster Brandon Saad in the fold. Even if Kane is rusty, the Blackhawks should be able to get by Nashville with relative ease.
Blackhawks in 6
VANCOUVER VS. CALGARY
Few people had either Calgary or Vancouver in the playoffs before the season, but both clubs made it and will face off in what should be a highly entertaining battle between bitter rivals from Western Canada.
Thanks to talented, young players like forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan and a penchant for third-period comebacks, the Flames could be the most exciting team to watch in the first round. Calgary would love to have star defenseman Mark Giordano in the lineup, but the Flames have been getting along fine without him since late February and his absence from this series shouldn't be too much of a hindrance for Bob Hartley's club.
The Canucks are still led by the Sedin twins, but there isn't much star power elsewhere on Vancouver's roster. The club seemed on the cusp of the rebuilding phase, but first-year head coach Willie Desjardins got the Canucks back to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons.
Desjardins is going with backup goalie Eddie Lack to start the series because regular No. 1 Ryan Miller only recently returned from a knee injury suffered in late February. Miller came back for the final regular-season contest, but Lack is in better game shape and gets the nod. It would be interesting to see how long Desjardins sticks with Lack if Vancouver gets itself in a hole.
This one has the feel of a series destined to go the distance. The slight edge goes to Calgary, a team that has had the right answer every time somebody has counted them out in 2014-15.
Flames in 7