NHL playoffs begin in thrilling fashion

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The St. Louis Blues’ T.J. Oshie, bottom, tries a backhanded shot against Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick, right, in second-period action in Game 1 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series on Tuesday, April 30, 2013, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri. The Blues won, 2-1, in OT. (Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

Chris Ginley

NHL Playoffs

With apologies to the Super Bowl, World Series and World Cup, the best two months in sports are upon us. The NHL Playoffs started Tuesday, with the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues each going up 1-0 in their respective series. Chicago and St. Louis both won in overtime. Among the storylines to watch in this year’s playoffs are: Can the Kings capture the magic of 2012 and become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions since the Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998? Can the Blackhawks prove that their hot start this season was not a fluke? Can one of the most respected players in the NHL, Teemu Selanne, be a leader and carry the Ducks through a deep playoff run? We will find out in these next two months. Here is a preview of the playoffs:

First round

Eastern Conference

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8) New York Islanders

How will the absence of Sidney Crosby for Game 1 affect the Penguins? On paper, the Islanders are overmatched in this series, with the Penguins winning the season series 4-1. The Islanders start and finish with their star, former No. 1 overall pick, Jon Tavares, who has 28 goals and 19 assists this season for 47 points. The Penguins on the other hand are favored by many to win the Cup. Even with Crosby out, the Pens still have Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, Chris Kunitz, Brendan Morrow and Marc André-Fleury, who can get hot during the playoffs. Prediction: The Penguins firepower will be too much for the Islanders to handle. Penguins in five.

(2) Montreal Canadiens vs. (7) Ottawa Senators

A fifth-place finish last season for Montreal must have lit a fire under people in the organization. One season and a new head coach later, the Canadiens find themselves atop the Northeast Division and in second place in the Eastern Conference. Coming into the playoffs winning their last two games to get out of a 1-5 skid, Montreal will have their hands full with Ottawa. They went 2-1-1 against the Senators in the regular season, but ended up with a negative goal differential, 8-11. For Ottawa, they will need to rely on goaltender Craig Anderson, who has a 1.69 goals against average, good for tops in the NHL.

Prediction: Ottawa puts up a good fight, but Montreal comes away in the end. Canadiens in six.

(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) New York Rangers

The Capitals are one of the hottest teams in the NHL, winning 11 of their past 13 games. With Alex Ovechkin rediscovering the skills that made him one of the best players in the NHL and a Hart Trophy candidate, Washington seems to be in a prime position to finally get past the second-round of the playoffs. Not so fast, though, as the New York Rangers stand in their way. Behind a feisty coach and a 2-1 advantage in the three games played this season, this series has the potential to be one of the most entertaining of the first round.

Prediction: With plenty of star power on display, the Rangers will overcome a pesky Capitals team. Rangers in seven.

(4) Boston Bruins vs. (5) Toronto Maple Leafs

The Bruins are out to prove that they are still contenders after their run to the Stanley Cup in 2010. Behind the strong play of goaltender Tuukka Rask, and the addition of Jaromir Jagr, who has nine points since joining Boston, the Bruins want to prove that they are capable of upsetting the Penguins, who are the favorites in the Eastern Conference. Toronto is making their first playoff appearance since 2004. Led by Phil Kessel, who has had his fifth-straight 50+ point season, and one of the top young stars in the game today in Nazem Kadri, Toronto is hoping to prove hockey fans everywhere that they can compete against one of the league’s best teams.

Prediction: The Bruins are too powerful for the Maple Leafs. Bruins in five.

Western Conference

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (8) Minnesota Wild

Chicago began the playoffs on Tuesday night in dramatic fashion, winning 2-1 in overtime against Minnesota. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa will lead an already-powerful team that scored 155 goals this season. Minnesota edged out the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final playoff spot in the West. Minnesota’s big off-season acquisitions, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, will need to be at the top of their games to pull off the upset. Parise’s -3 rating against Chicago does not bode well for Minnesota. Chicago will be trying to not be the second straight No. 1 seed in the Western Conference to get upset in the first round.

Prediction: Chicago continues to prove why they won the President’s Trophy. Blackhawks in five.

(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings

Anaheim started off the series on the right foot, winning game one by a score of 3-1. The Anaheim Ducks took a back seat to the Blackhawks this season. Forget their 30 wins, which was second in the Western Conference and third in the NHL; Anaheim wants to prove that there is another top team in the Western Conference other than Chicago. Despite their 1-2 record against Detroit this season, the Ducks got here with strong play from forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, along with the leadership of Teemu Selanne. Detroit is coming in hot, winning their last four games of the regular season. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg need to continue their strong seasons. Each of them have 34 or more assists this year.

Prediction: This will represent what playoff hockey is all about, but I think experience will be the deciding factor. Red Wings in seven.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) San Jose Sharks

In a matchup of two of the most underachieving teams in the NHL, this will be a good series. The Northwest Division champions for the fifth consecutive year, the Vancouver Canucks will have their hands full when they play at the HP Pavilion where the Sharks are 17-2-5 this season. The Sedin brothers will need to continue their 40-plus point seasons if they want to take care of business. San Jose has won all three games against Vancouver this season. Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski are the only players on the Sharks who have double-digit goals.

Prediction: San Jose continues their underachieving ways. Canucks in six.

(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings

St. Louis began this series the right way, winning game one in overtime, 2-1. In a rematch of last season’s Western Conference semifinals, Los Angeles is hoping to capture the magic of last season’s playoff run, in which they only lost one game on the road. The Kings need to forget about the loss and focus on the next game, so they don’t fall in a 0-2 hole. One of the hotter teams in the league, the Blues went 11-3 in the month of April. Led by surprising rookie Vladimir Tarasenko, who has two goals in two games against Los Angeles this season and veterans David Backes and Chris Stewart, St. Louis wants to get revenge for last season’s loss.

Prediction: Much like a hot pitcher can be a blessing in the World Series, a hot goaltender can take a team far in the playoffs. Kings in seven.

2nd Round

Eastern Conference

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (6) New York Rangers

Prediction: Penguins in six.

(2) Montreal Canadiens vs. (4) Boston Bruins

Prediction: Bruins in seven.

Western Conference

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings

Prediction: Blackhawks in six.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings

Prediction: Canucks in seven.

Conference Finals

Eastern Conference

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (4) Boston Bruins

Prediction: Penguins in seven.

Western Conference

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (3) Vancouver Canucks

Stanley Cup Finals

(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (1) Chicago Blackhawks

A matchup of the two best offenses in the NHL, this series will have plenty of star-power. The X-factor in this series will be the goaltending and defense.

Prediction: Blackhawks in six.

Contact Chris Ginley at [email protected].