The NHL season begins this afternoon, starting with an NBC telecast of Pittsburgh-Philadelphia at 3 PM ET. Here at TheSportsNotebook we ran through every team in the league in Friday’s NHL preview, placing each team in a general tier based on their Stanley Cup odds in Las Vegas. Now it’s time to make some final NHL predictions on the eight teams in each conference will make the playoffs and who will ultimately hoist the Cup. Here’s how I’ve got the playoff seedings shaking out…
While the playoffs never go according to the chalk, I don’t have any real reason to do anything other than just pick my #1 seeds to advance to the Finals, so that would be a rematch of 2011, with Boston meeting Vancouver. But there would be one significant difference, and that’s in goal.
Vancouver has benched Roberto Luongo and has put him on the trade market. Cory Schneider is the replacement and that change is exactly why I think this Canuck team can do what its predecessors couldn’t, and that’s translate regular season success into playoff wins.
Boston goalie Tim Thomas has retired, and in this case I’m sticking with the Bruins in spite of the goaltending change. Thomas was great to his very last game, but I’ve been very high on Tuuka Raask. If the new guy can’t hack it over the long haul, this pick is going to look very stupid. If Raask comes through it will be incredibly farsighted. Either way, it’s a prediction that could only come from a partisan Bruins fan, as I am. I’ve seen the backup goalie enough to be high on him, yet am also worried I’m making the fans’ mistake of overrating the #2 man on the totem pool. We’re about to find out.
The bottom of the Western Conference is much more competitive than the East—I expect Phoenix, Minnesota and Colorado to compete right to the end for a postseason berth. I’m very confident in my top six in the West, but the last two spots are fluid. Nashville can go dramatically in either direction—Pekka Rinne is the kind of goaltender who can win a Cup if he gets in the playoffs. But the loss of Ryan Suter to free agency and a shaky offense could make getting there tough. Dallas is just a little better balanced then the teams I have missing the postseason party.
I really don’t like the choices for the last spots in the East, and I don’t think Montreal would make it in the West. The most notable exclusion I have from the bracket is Florida, who won a close race for the Southeast Division title over Washington and claimed the #3 seed. However the top three seeds are reserved for division champs, and in reality both Florida and Washington were among the weakest teams in the playoffs. I’m looking for Alex Ovechkin, and by extension the Capitals to have a bounceback year and make the postseason a little more comfortably. I don’t see a reason to be high on Florida, and Montreal is much better than what they showed in a disastrous 2012 campaign.
The 5-seed picks in both conferences are also notable. Ottawa was #8 a year ago, and while I’m a little concerned about the goaltending, this is a team that plays offense well enough to win some games and move up in the playoff pecking order. New Jersey is weakened by the loss of Zach Parise to free agency, and though I respect the Devils, they’ll slide a bit as a result. It creates the room for Ottawa to move up.
And the Western Conference #5 is last year’s Cup champion, the Los Angeles Kings. This is a classic split-the-difference pick. Is Los Angeles the borderline playoff team who barely made it as an 8-seed? Or are they the team that played genuinely dominant hockey in all phases of the game during the playoffs? I’m going down the middle, but I’d lean more to the latter—they’re one of five teams in the West that are legitimate Cup contenders. Then San Jose is kind of in a gray area as a dark horse, with a big dropoff to the last two spots.
Who wins my Boston-Vancouver Finals? C’mon, do you think I’m going to pick the Bruins to get this far and not take them to win the whole thing? Besides, if it reaches this point, Raask will have proved his bona fides and Boston’s underrated offense and physical defense will stand up. The Bruins win their second Cup in three years. Don’t poke the Bear.