The playoffs this year, just like those before it, sets the stage with some incredible story lines as the league's best teams prepare to fight for the right to lift the Cup. There are veterans to root for (Jarome Iginla), teams that have surprised many with their regular season success (Colorado) and a million other reasons to cheer for one team or another. Let's take a look at the first round and see who will move on to Round 2.
Colorado at Home to Minnesota - Do not, I repeat, do not sleep on Minnesota. Minnesota is a well balanced team that brings scoring punch, grit and solid team defense to the table. It's easy to say that about any team in these playoffs. I point it out here because I feel Minnesota's balance has been somewhat understated leading into the postseason. They were missing two key pieces in Parise and Koivu for long stretches and still fought their way here. Is it enough to topple Colorado? While it's going to be a fun matchup, I think the Avs have too much firepower and greater overall depth. Patrick Roy has these guys believing in him, in themselves and in each other. Their youthful exuberance will be an advantage in this series.
Avs in 6.
St. Louis at Home to Chicago - The two best series of the first round may very well come out of the West and this is one of them (stay tuned for the second). The Blues are getting healthy at the right time, but their slide leading into the postseason is glaring and hard to ignore as they went 3-7-0 in their last 10 games. Chicago hasn't exactly been on fire lately either, splitting their last 10. The difference here is while St. Louis gets healthy by welcoming back Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blackhawks get Jonathan Toews and Pat Kane. The Blues have been beat up lately. Backes and Oshie are sore and Miller has looked more like a screen door is the second half of his tenure. If St. Louis were healthy coming into the matchup I'd give them the edge, but I have to give this one to Chicago. Blackhawks in 6.
Anaheim at Home to Dallas - Anaheim has been one of the most dominant teams in the league this year. They've done almost everything right, but there is one serious issue that scares me about them: they have not one, not two, but three potential starters in net. The three headed monster that is Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen and John Gibson is concerning. Word has it that Andersen will get Game #1. The most important position on the ice isn't set in stone and that can cause a problem. Dallas did a respectable job to get into the playoffs, but even with Anaheim's conundrum in net, the Ducks are going to be too much for what is likely a weary Stars team.
Ducks in 5.
San Jose at Home to LA - This is the other series I was talking about. If you follow my Twitter feed you know how I feel about this matchup. It bears repeating: what a shame that one of these teams is going to have to be out of the running so early in the playoffs. Both teams are extremely entertaining and can play a tough brand of hockey. It's top flight offense vs. shut down defense. San Jose has the 6th most goals for per game and LA has the lowest goals against per game. Raise your hand if you knew the following, though - San Jose has the 5th lowest goals against per game. They've become a fantastic all around hockey team and I think the infusion of developed youth (Hertl, Nieto, Braun, Couture) will help the Sharks overcome some past playoff woes and take down a serious contender.
Sharks in 7.
Boston at Home to Detroit - While I spoke highly of the Minnesota Wild above, something about this series really screams UPSET! Detroit is a bit banged up yet and doesn't have a lot of outside supporters considering their first round opponent. They're without their Captain, Henrik Zetterberg, until late in the first round if not into the second if they make it. But don't forget that the Red Wings were up 3-1 on the eventual Cup champs last year before a collapse that saw them lose in seven. This team has played through a lot this season and they're not satisfied with just making it into the playoffs. Boston has played a lot of extra games over the last several seasons and I think they're ripe for the taking.
Detroit in 6.
Tampa Bay at Home to Montreal - I try to hide it, but I'm a big Bolts fan. How incredible has their drafting been lately? Palat, Johnson, Killorn all in the lineup making a difference on a nightly basis. Their defense is tough and Ben Bishop is settling into the top netminder many believed he was capable of becoming. And of course they have Stamkos and talented grit from Callahan. Montreal has played great down the stretch and they get Brandon Prust back which is a huge boost for them. Still, I can't help but feel that Stamkos is extra fresh and hungry after all of the time off and he will take over this series.
Tampa in 6.
Pittsburgh at Home to Columbus - Columbus is going to steal a couple of games in this series. I can even see them putting a scare into the Pens if they get ahead 2-1 in games. Unfortunately, the Pens are at full strength and received an emotional boost by the returns of Kris Letang and Tomas Vokoun. The Blue Jackets are hungry and they're going to throw everything they have at Pittsburgh. This just isn't their time, but believe me, their time is coming and I'm excited for when the Blue Jackets grow into the identity they've created.
Pens in 6.
Rangers at Home to Philadelphia - There's something about these two teams meeting that is so satisfying. Ever since I was a kid these two franchises always seemed to go after each other and put on a great show. While Philadelphia has the top player in the series with Giroux, their goaltending scares me. Mason is out for Game #1 giving the start to Ray Emery. Emery can either be really good or he can implode. They've had some of their struggles covered up by a high scoring offensive attack. The trouble is, that attack is about to face Henrik Lundqvist and a Rangers lineup that is starting to figure out how to use the newly acquired Martin St. Louis (5 points in the last 5 games). Considering how the season started it's good to see the Flyers in the playoffs. The Philadelphia organization in the postseason is good for the NHL. I just don't see it lasting for more than a round.
Rangers in 7.