Setting the stage for an odd NHL postseason

The 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs have potential to be bizarre, chock full of underdogs, looming upsets, and void of several usual heavy hitters.

That makes this year’s tournament even harder to predict, as hockey especially is prone to upsets, with streaky wild card teams coming out of nowhere, and hot goaltenders carrying teams on their shoulders.

Not the Usual Suspects

The defending champion Los Angeles Kings won’t be participating, never fully recovering from their slow start. Neither will the Boston Bruins, participants in two of the last four Stanley Cup Finals and the last seven postseasons. Closer to home, the San Jose Sharks saw their 10-year playoff streak end with a flop of a season.

That allowed teams such as the Winnipeg Jets to sneak into the playoffs for the first time in 19 years and others – the Minnesota Wild and Ottawa Senators – to ride a hot streak into the postseason after being considered long shots a few months ago.

True Wild Cards

It would be dangerous for any of the top seeds to sleepwalk through the first round, as the wild card teams, backed by hot goaltenders, could prove to be trouble.

We’ll start with the Ottawa Senators, who finished 22-4-4 in their last 30 games and climbed up the standings from the third-worst record in the East to the first wild card spot. They rode goaltender Andrew Hammond, who went 20-1-2 to finish the season.

Ditto for the Minnesota Wild, who acquired goaltender Devan Dubynk from the Coyotes in mid-January and watched him post a 36-14-4 record in between the pipes to propel the Wild, last in their division prior to trading for Dubnyk, into the first wild card spot in the West.

Sticking with the theme, the Winnipeg Jets, the second wild card team in the West also have the luxury of a hot goaltender in Ondrej Pavelec, who recorded three consecutive shutouts to end the year and finished 9-2-1 in his last 12 starts. They also have a first round matchup against the Ducks, a weak No. 1 seed that has managed a goal differential of plus-7, ranking just 18th in the league.

The Pittsburgh Penguins round out the wild card teams in the East; despite being riddled by injuries and Marc-Andre Fleury’s playoff struggles, a team with superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can never be counted out.

Predictions

With the likelihood of wild card teams pulling upsets, playoff predictions will either be spot on or way off.

Despite the warnings, I like the Montreal Canadiens to come out of the East, the Chicago Blackhawks to win the West, and the Canadiens to ultimately claim the Stanley Cup.

Defense wins championships, and the Canadiens embody that slogan. Carey Price’s 1.96 GAA led the league, making him the likely Vezina trophy winner and an MVP candidate. As a team, Montreal clamps down in their zone, allowing a league-low 2.24 goals per game. The Canadiens will be challenged by the Presidents’ Trophy winner New York Rangers, but I expect P.K. Subban and the rest of their loaded blue line to prevail.

The Blackhawks will come out of the West out of sheer process of elimination. The Ducks, as mentioned, are not as good as their point total may suggest. The Canucks and Flames, the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the Pacific Division, are nice stories as neither team was predicted to make the playoffs, but their unexpected successes should be thwarted in the postseason.

However, a run to the Stanley Cup by Chicago will be contingent on getting through the Nashville Predators in the first round. The Central Division features five teams – Blackhawks, Predators, Blues, Wild, and Jets — making the playoffs with at least 99 points, and with the bottom half of the West bracket consisting of Central teams, whoever makes it to the Conference Finals will have truly earned it.

But the nod right now goes to the Blackhawks, who have the experience, depth, and coaching to make another deep playoff run.

Just not deep enough to best the Canadiens, who will bring home a Stanley Cup to hockey-crazed Montreal for the first time in over two decades.