Monday, April 11, 2016

Playoffs Start on Wednesday... Is Your Entry Ready?

The Playoff Pool entries are already starting to come in, which means there is some excitement brewing for this year's Spring Dance, even though there will be a good number of us without our favourite team in the dance.  Nevertheless, that might take the heart out of it and make it into a pretty fun pool.

If you're looking for the selection sheet, click here for a PDF copy.  The deadline for submission is puck drop on Wednesday, so don't be late!

Let's go over the eight series that will be the opening round of the playoffs, which will get started on Wednesday night!

The playoffs will open up in Tampa Bay, with a rematch between the Red Wings and Lightning, a very good series from last year's opening round, but the story lines coming into this one are much different going in this year.

The Red Wings are sliding in by the skin of their teeth again, while the battered and bruised Lightning have far more questions than answers going in.  The Wings sheet is going in awfully healthy, but their goaltending is a bit of a question.  On the sheet, Petr Mrazek sits in Box 24, but it could be Jimmy Howard taking the early reps.  Howard's points won't count, so beware!

For the Lightning, Tyler Johnson was hurt in the final game and he's questionable, Nikita Kucherov is dealing with an issue, but could still be ready, Ryan Callahan and Victor Hedman both finished the year day-to-day and Steven Stamkos was taken off the sheet, as his blood clot diagnosis was announced before the final copy went out.  Phew!  If the Bolts are going to win, they'll have to dig deep.

The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins get drawn together in the opening round, meaning that one of the darling NBC teams will take a hike early on in the playoffs. Good teams getting booted early will be a common theme again this year, I'm sure.

The Rangers may have lost the season series to the Penguins, but they do have one big advantage starting on Wednesday and that's in goal, where Henrik Lundqvist is ready to go.  Where they may lack heading into the playoffs is leadership, as captain Ryan McDonagh may not be ready to go, since he suffered a significant upper-body injury, believed to be a broken hand, leading up to the finish of the year.  Mats Zuccarello, Eric Staal and Dan Girardi are all expected to be ready.

On the Penguins' side, goaltending is a major concern, since Marc-Andre Fleury is still dealing with a concussion and no timetable has been given for his return, not to mention his understudy is also ailing.  The Penguins will have to hold on for dear life, as they await the return of both Evgeni Malkin and Olli Maatta, who are still about 10 days away from returning.  Will home-ice advantage be enough?

The reigning champs don't get an easy draw this year, as the Chicago Blackhawks will get a Central Division rival in the St. Louis Blues to start the playoffs.  Another series which will take out a top contender to start, but it will make for compelling hockey.  Can the champs push through or will the Blues finally make it past this giant speed bump of an opponent?

The Blackhawks coaching staff suggested that they will be completely healthy for Game 1 of the series, which means a lot of top guys will be good to go.  Duncan Keith, however, still has to sit one more game of his 6-game suspension on Wednesday night, but after that, he'll be good and rested for Game 2.

The Blues are playing their cards close to the chest, but we know already that Brian Elliott is getting the start for Game 1, which means that Jake Allen won't start giving anyone any credit in the pool, if he's chosen to start.  Allen was last season's number one into the playoffs, but a late undisclosed injury slotted Elliott ahead of him, for the time being.

On Thursday, the questions about this year's President's Trophy team start to get answered, as the Washington Capitals open the night's action against the Philadelphia Flyers, in Game 1 of what could be an entertaining series.

The Flyers got off to a rough start in the year, but managed to bounce back when their stars began to shine and their goaltending situation became a little bit more concrete.  They spoiled a lot of plans, heading into April, so they should be poised to do it all over again.  All of the players that are on the sheet appear to be healthy, so if you're looking at an upset, you're in luck!

As for the Capitals, they are going to be under the microscope, even more so than other years.  Tops in the league, an NHL-record tying goalie and the league's only 50-goal scorer.  You would think that's enough to go all the way, but now it's that time for all that playoff moxie to come to the surface.  You don't get Justin Williams for nothing.  Everyone on the sheet appears to be healthy and ready to go.

The Florida Panthers, the Atlantic Division winners, get the first Eastern wild card team, the New York Islanders, in a series that has some potential for intrigue.  The Panthers have a mix of solid veterans and rambunctious youth, while the Islanders will be bringing their lunch pails to each and every game, ready to use some of that elbow grease that got them this far.

The Islanders work ethic is going to be what sets this team apart, one way or the other.  Either they'll be a very difficult team to play against or they may not match-up very well against these Panthers and it's tough to see it somewhere in the middle.  Anders Lee is not going to see any playoff time, thanks to a broken leg and their pool sheet netminder, Jaroslav Halak, is still a week or two from returning from a lower-body injury, so they'll rely on Thomas Greiss to get the job done, for now.

Mixing Jaromir Jagr & Roberto Luongo on the veteran side and Jonathan Huberdeau & Aleksander Barkov on the youthful side, makes this Panthers team dangerous for all kinds of different reasons.  This team has some real potential and the presence to get them somewhere, now they just have to overcome the stigma of being the Panthers.  Watch out for Erik Gudbranson, he was on the list as day-to-day with an upper-body injury.

The old versus the new... from Minnesota, that is.  The Wild and the Stars will go head-to-head, starting in Dallas, which makes for a good story line as it were.  These two teams are seemingly polar opposites, the Wild a more defensively controlled team, where the Stars are a wild run-and-gun squad that will just try to shoot out the lights before the other guys do.  This one should be good on a few levels, at the very least.

The Wild will saddle up Devan Dubnyk in net, to no one's surprise, and they will ride him until he can't go anymore.  Any one team can do a lot of damage with a red hot goalie.  The Wild had a couple of injury concerns before the end of the year, both Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek were dealing with knocks.  The early reports are that are both will likely miss the start of the playoffs, but are day-to-day.  This will mean they'll have to buckle down a little harder to start.

The Stars are no stranger, when it comes to putting the puck in the net.  Jamie Benn will lead a very potent offense, which will only get stronger, if and when Tyler Seguin returns from a minor Achilles problem, which he suffered in the middle of March.  The original prognosis was four weeks, which is coming up here soon.  No word on the starting goalie yet, which is somewhat concerning for the Stars, who have had all kinds of trouble from the back end out.  Kari Lehtonen was the chosen one this year.

The relegation prize for not winning the Pacific Division on the weekend was a series against the San Jose Sharks.  The Los Angeles Kings could have avoided this fate with a win on Saturday, but failed to do so and lost the division on Sunday, when they had already packed up for the regular season.  There's no doubt that this will be a spirited affair and a huge test for the Kings' battle tested players.

The Sharks will come into this one with two goalies that should be able to come up big for them, when called upon.  They should be leading with Martin Jones, their Box 12 representation, but they'll have James Reimer in reserve, just in case.  Their only real injury concern is Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who should be ready soon for the Sharks, he's dealing with a lower-body injury of some sort.  The Sharks come in as the underdog, but don't count them out.

In Los Angeles, the Kings hardly boast a big regular season record, but you look at the squad they have assembled for this playoff run and you know that they're going to be ready to go.  Jonathan Quick has been great this year, while their scorers are clutch at this time of the year, including recent acquisition, Kris Versteeg.  Only one injury note on the sheet and that is defenseman Alec Martinez, who is currently day-to-day with an undisclosed injury.

Finally, not getting started until Friday night, will be the series between the Nashville Predators and the Anaheim Ducks.  The Ducks were the ones that usurped the division title away from Los Angeles and their prize was... well, not much better than the booby prize, in the Predators.   Pick your poison, if you will.

The Nashville Predators have a very impressive lineup of forwards for the first time in a while, which includes Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and James Neal to go along with their All-Star cast of defenders and goalie.  The Ducks will have their wings full with this group, especially since they're all healthy.

Man, were the Ducks terrible to start the year.  Then, they really turned around, earned the league's best power play and penalty kill by the end of the year.  It was quite the transformation within one season and now they are a force to be reckoned with.  Now, their biggest question lies in goal, where the sheet has John Gibson, but still seems to be somewhat in the air.  Ryan Kesler, Rickard Rakell and Sami Vatanen all finished the year on the news page, but all should be go when the series starts at the end of the week.

Looks like it's going to be a great year for the playoffs, despite no Canadian clubs... no home teams to cheer for this year, but I think we'll all manage.

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