It’s finally that time of year again. Although the warm temperatures of spring begin to set in outside, 20 bewhiskered men take to a frozen sheet of ice, beginning a two month long quest for what is inarguably the most grand and iconic trophy in sports: Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Here is the field of 16:
1. Pittsburgh Penguins1. VS. 8. New York Islanders
2. Montreal Canadiens 2. VS. 7. Ottawa Senators
3. Washington Capitals 3. VS. 6. New York Rangers
4. Boston Bruins 4. VS. 5. Toronto Maple Leafs
1. Chicago Blackhawks 1. VS. 8. Minnesota Wild
2. Anaheim Ducks 2. VS. 7. Detroit Red Wings
3. Vancouver Canucks 3. VS. 6. San Jose Sharks
4. St. Louis Blues 4. VS. 5. Los Angeles Kings
Starting with the hometown team:
The Capitals face the New York Rangers for the fourth time in the last five years this spring. The Caps bested the Rangers in the team's first two playoff meetings but lost in a decisive seventh game at Madison Square Garden last season. Although the teams may be familiar with each other after what may seem like an uncannily recurring playoff match up, both teams enter the postseason with a dramatically different roster than the previous year.
The Capitals chose not to re-sign talented left winger Alex Semin and parted ways with veterans Mike Knuble and Dennis Wideman. In fact, only three of the Capitals current six defensemen played more than 30 regular season games for the Capitals last regular season. Steven Oleksy, John Erksine, and Jack Hillen were all irregulars in the Capitals line-up one year ago. The Capitals, however, return goaltender Braden Holtby, an unexpected playoff hero one year ago.
The New York Rangers also sport a roster that is quite different from last April. Over the summer, the Rangers traded forwards Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky as well as prospect Tim Erixon for superstar Rick Nash. Then, on the April 3 trade deadline, the Rangers shipped away talented forward Marian Gaborik, again to Columbus for Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and defense man John Moore. Henrick “The King” Lundqvist will man the pipes for the Rangers and is consistently one of the NHL’s best goaltenders.
The Prediction: Capitals in six. How can I predict against my hometown team? Washington is a talented hockey club that has heaps of confidence after posting an amazing 15-2-2 record in their last 19 games. With forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom both on impressive scoring binges, the Rangers will not stand in the way of a resilient and determined Capitals team this year. Look for the Capitals to find success on their power-play and attempt to shut down the Rangers top line of Nash, Hagelin, and Ryan Callahan.
New to the party:
In the Eastern Conference, both the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs return to the postseason after extended absences. The Islanders are playing in late April for the first time since 2007, and the Maple Leafs have joined the playoff festivities for the first time since 2004. The Maple Leafs were the last team to not qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs after the 2004-2005 lockout.
Both teams are potentially dangerous in the playoffs, surrounded by overwhelming fan support. Toronto takes on a physical Boston team, capable of making a run for the Stanley Cup. The Islanders, on the shoulders of first overall draft pick John Taveras and veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov are poised to give the first seeded Pittsburgh Penguins a run for their money.
In the East, the Penguins stood alone as this season’s dominant team. Even with injuries to star players Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal, the Penguins traded for veterans Jarome Iginla, Brandon Sutter, and Brendan Morrow. Now, Neal and Malkin have returned, and Sidney Crosby has been cleared to return after missing over a month with a broken jaw. The Penguins are heavily favored to return to the Stanley Cup finals, but tough rivals such as the Capitals, Bruins, and Canadiens could give the Pens a run for their money.
In the West, the Chicago Blackhawks started of the season with an incredible 24 game point streak and never looked back. The Presidents Trophy recipients won a Stanley Cup behind the play of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa in 2010, and are looking to return to the finals. However, the Blackhawks will have to contend with a tough Minnesota Wild team, rejuvenated by the free agent signing of Ryan Sueter and Zach Parise.
Other series to watch:
The match up of Ottawa and Montreal is set to be a highly emotional, highly contested series in the east. Look for stellar performance from goaltenders Cary Price and Craig Anderson. In the end, I would bet on Montreal to win in seven. The scoring of Thomas Plekanec combined with the enhanced defense of P.K. Subban cannot be matched by the Sens.
The 2013 playoffs are certain to be an intense, emotional, journey of which only one team can be victorious. One thing’s for sure, it’s anyone’s year. Every player is making the ultimate sacrifice for sports’ Holy Grail: The Stanley Cup.
The full NHL schedule for the first round can be seen here: