(4) Winnipeg VS (1) Anaheim
Anaheim in 6
The Anaheim Ducks are once again the top seed in the Western Conference after totaling 109 points this season. In fact, they have been Pacific Division Champions three years running. Alarmingly, they have not reached the Conference Finals since the 2006-07 season, the same year in which they won the franchise’s only Stanley Cup. While Anaheim clearly has a history of early exits from the postseason, expect the experience of veterans Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to carry the Ducks over the Jets, a franchise that has not been in the playoffs since 2007 (then the Atlanta Thrashers).
(3) Calgary VS (2) Vancouver
Vancouver in 7
This battle for supremacy in Western Canada is a tossup. Both teams finished the regular season 6-3-1, and they were only separated in the standings by a margin of 4 points. The Canucks come into postseason play behind their star twin duo Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who tallied 76 and 73 points, respectively. The Canucks’ biggest question coming in is who will be the starting goalie, Eddie Lack or Ryan Miller. Similarly, the Flames have a question mark at goaltender as well. Jonas Hiller appears to be the starter come game 1, but it is important to note that he lost his starting job in the postseason with Anaheim last year. Goalie trouble aside, if the Flames wish to keep their surprise season going, they must get continued production from rookie sensation Johnny Gaudreau.
(4) Minnesota VS (1) St. Louis
St. Louis in 6
The St. Louis Blues tout the best goal differential in the Western Conference. Accomplishing this feat has come via a combination of solid play on both ends of the ice, as the Blues are top 5 in the league in both goals scored and goals against. Vladimir Tarasenko is one of the best offensive talents in the league, and defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are two of the finest blue-liners you’ll find. While Minnesota put together a solid 100 point season, the star-studded lineup that the Blues bolster will prove to be too much to handle for the Wild.
(3) Chicago VS (2) Nashville
Chicago in 7
The Nashville Predators are coming into the postseason for the first time in three years as the third best team in the Western Conference in terms of points. From Filip Forsberg’s breakout season to the standard solid play of goalie Pekka Rinne, the predators have put together quite the season. Unfortunately, they pair with the Chicago Blackhawks, winners of 2 of the last 5 Stanley Cup Championships. In addition, star forward Patrick Kane is expected to play for the first time in nearly 2 months since he suffered a clavicle injury. Kane, Toews and company will be too much for Nashville.
(4) Pittsburgh VS (1) New York (Rangers)
New York in 5
During the first half of the season, this is not a matchup we would have expected to see in the first round. Ravaged by the injury bug, the Pittsburgh Penguins struggled mightily in the second half of the season, only edging Boston for the final Wild Card spot by 2 points. You have to be at full strength to beat the President Trophy winning New York Rangers, and the Penguins are far from it. The Rangers will keep up their exceptional level of play and will have some time to rest before the next round after a quick ousting of Sidney Crosby and the Pens.
(3) New York (Islanders) VS (2) Washington
Washington in 6
A lot has been made of the potential “Battle of New York” in the second round if both the Islanders and Rangers advance. However, with Alexander Ovechkin playing the way he has this year, fans in the Big Apple will have to wait for an intrastate rivalry for at least another year. Ovechkin, scorer of 50 or more goals in one season for the sixth time in his career, has evolved as a better two-way player. Taking his absurdly awful plus/minus of -35 last season to +10 this year is evidence that Ovechkin has accepted the burden of leading his team to previously unattainable postseason success.
(4) Ottawa VS (1) Montreal
Montreal in 6
The Montreal Canadiens’ season went relatively according to expectations: star defenseman P.K. Subban displayed his offensive talent by notching 60 points, solid forward Max Paccioretty led the team in total goals and points, and Carey Price had himself a Vezina Trophy caliber season by leading the league in just about every goaltending statistical category. The Senators, on the flipside, trailed in the wild card standings by a double-digit point margin less than two months ago. However, don’t expect Ottawa’s season ending surge to translate into first round success as the Canadiens are simply too sound in all facets of the game.
(3) Detroit VS (2) Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay in 5
Home ice has been kind to the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, as they have accumulated the best home record in the NHL at 32-8-1. Center Steven Stamkos helped his team to the highest goals per game average in the league, and starting goalie Ben Bishop recorded 40 wins on the season. When Bishop was injured for the first round last year, the Lightning were swept by the Canadiens. With a healthy net-minder and a ferocious offensive attack, the Lightning will close out the inconsistent Wings on home ice in game 5.