The 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs get underway when the puck drops between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning shortly after 4:00 p.m. PDT Wed., April 16. The San Jose Sharks drop the puck on their first-round battle with the Los Angeles Kings Thursday.
Examiner.com previewed that series Tuesday, predicting the Sharks would win in seven. They ended the 2013-14 NHL season with 111 points, good for a second-place finish in the Pacific Division behind the Anaheim Ducks (116). Two other teams finished higher in the Western Conference but only one in the Eastern Conference, possibly impacting home-ice advantage in subsequent Stanley Cup playoff rounds.
It is only natural to wonder who San Jose's opponent would be in the second round. What would the rest of the field look like? What would that bring for the future and how might those series look?
Everyone does predictions. Many people even enjoy getting into the competition with wagers, from mayors offering local goods if their team loses to bracket challenges to places like Bovada (the source of all odds listed below, as of April 15) offering betting lines on what each team's chances are in a given series, its chances of winning the conference as well as the Stanley Cup and so much more.
However, there is a purity in enjoying the moment. That is robbed by wondering if the team is going to cost one money. It allows one to examine what series along the way might be compelling for either just their drama or a potential future matchup.
Since there will be 14 other playoffs series to look at on the road to the Stanley Cup, giving equal depth to each as Tuesday's preview against Los Angeles is not practical. Even future Sharks series (singular or plural?) will not receive that much focus, though any they do have will get a little more in-depth on the team this column covers.
Other Western Conference series are worthy of being examined individually because they are more likely to impact San Jose. Finally, the Eastern Conference is only examined by round...
Eastern Conference Round 1
The Boston Bruins (-300) face the battle-tested Detroit Red Wings (+250), but captain Henrik Zetterberg will not be on the ice when it starts. The big, bad B's are too much for them, taking it in six.
The Pittsburgh Penguins (-260) have too much scoring and experience to lose to the Columbus Blue Jackets (+220). However, the expansion franchise not only gets its first-ever playoff win, but probably two as they provide a real challenge for the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.
The Montreal Canadiens (-105 which is actually a slight underdog) will be able to steal the first game because the Tampa Bay Lightning (-115) will be without Ben Bishop. Even when he comes back, Carey Price is the safer bet in the playoffs, winning four of six.
The New York Rangers (-145) play the Philadelphia Flyers (+125). This is a team with home-ice advantage that is playing better going into the playoffs and has the better goalie. The only reason it could go further than five games is it is a rivalry game.
St. Louis Blues (-110) over Chicago Blackhawks (-110)
The St. Louis Blues struggled to say the least at the end of the 2013-14 NHL season. They are not totally healthy, but expect several players that were out to return now that the stakes are higher. They dominated the Central Division in the regular season and play the defensive style so successful in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
They also have superior depth. However, their only star is in net. Ryan Miller will be facing a plethora of championship stars for the Chicago Blackhawks. That is why these teams are a literal toss-up on the betting board.
However, St. Louis is starving for a championship and Chicago already has one. Between hunger and home-ice advantage, the chance to satisfy that appetite survives seven games.
Anaheim Ducks (-190) over Dallas Stars (+165)
The Dallas Stars made the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in six years. They were the last to qualify and have the worst record of any team to make the postseason. They do have a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership, with a good goalie and great coach.
However, the Anaheim Ducks have that same mix of youth and veterans—including one retiring they are rallying around. They have not had great goalie play during the season, but all of their options have shown the capability of performing at the highest level.
This is not just a team that has a few players left from the team that won the 2007 Stanley Cup. This is a team with the depth at all three positions and enough star power to get it done again. They should not lose more than one game in this series.
Colorado Avalanche (-135) over Minnesota Wild (+115)
The Colorado Avalanche may have overachieved in terms of the finish to the 2013-14 NHL season, but that does not mean they do not belong among the discussion of elite teams. They have potent scoring, are committed if not mistake-free defensively and have an elite goalie.
The Minnesota Wild might have the two best skaters in this series, but their goalies are bigger questions. These two teams know each other well—the new Central Division rivals both realigned from the old Northwest Division—and that should make the series tighter.
However, bet on speed and goalie play to determine this one: Colorado in six games.
Eastern Conference Round 2
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the most overrated team in the NHL—almost as much as Team Russia in the Olympics, and for the same reason. Neither team plays well defensively, and both are usually at a disadvantage in net.
There is no series where that will be more apparent than against the New York Rangers. A better goalie and blue line trumps better forwards and past playoff success in six games.
The Boston Bruins are the best team in hockey. They have size, skill and a smothering defense. The Montreal Canadiens less size and more speed, but are still not quite as good as their long-time rivals in any other facet of the game. At best, that rivalry takes this series to seven games before the 2013 Eastern Conference champions earn a return trip to the finals.
San Jose Sharks over Anaheim Ducks
The Anaheim Ducks will avoid the battle the San Jose Sharks will have to endure in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. That also means avoiding the sharpening a tough early round can provide.
Looking at the low workload for Tomas Hertl, Raffi Torres and even Logan Couture leading up to the playoffs, the Sharks should be able to have enough left in the tank. In reality, they have the advantage in all three units, and that means more than any rest-versus-rust argument or home-ice advantage.
St. Louis Blues over Colorado Avalanche
The Chicago Blackhawks are the perfect test for the St. Louis Blues. The 2013 Stanley Cup champions will push their Central Division rivals to be better, but are not a very physical team.
The Blues should even have a chance to get healthier, and that is bad news for a Colorado Avalanche team that entered the 2013-14 NHL season with a realisitic goal of just making the playoffs. That youth is bound to mean a key mistake can be exploited early, and lead to doing down in six games.
San Jose Sharks over St. Louis Blues
The San Jose Sharks will not lose to the St. Louis Blues. Look for Dan Boyle to use having been a target of head-hunter Maxim Lapierre as motivation to a big series.
The team apparently already has used the dangerous hit as motivation head-to-head. After losing eight of nine against St. Louis, San Jose dominated about 160 of the remaining 175 minutes of hockey between the two in the 2013-14 NHL season after seeing their teammate driven head-first into the boards.
The Blues will find a way to win two of these games, but no more against one of the few teams that can match their depth.
Boston Bruins over New York Rangers
The New York Rangers are one of the few teams that match the Boston Bruins in net. However, that is the only position where the two are basically equal.
The 2013 Eastern Conference champions are still the most complete team in hockey. They have a dominant defenseman, goalie and several stud forwards. Those players have an excellent supporting cast, as this team is deep enough to handle a second consecutive run to the Stanley Cup finals. They might only need six games in this round to secure that.
Boston Bruins over San Jose Sharks
The Boston Bruins are bigger and badder than everyone in the Eastern Conference, and that will serve them well. In addition to an easier travel schedule (no team racked up more mileage than the San Jose Sharks), that makes their battle to reach the finish line easier.
The Sharks have the depth and hunger to force a seventh game, but there is a reason they lost both very close games in the 2013-14 NHL season. Their advantage at forward is out-weighed by the superior Bruins on the back end.