The 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs begin Wednesday, and for a few of the top seeds in both conferences, there are reasons to be concerned.
Round 1 of the playoffs often has been very tough to survive, and we’ve seen many upsets in recent years. Over the last two postseasons, nine of the 18 first-round series were won by the lower-seeded team, and four of the series won by the higher-seeded team went to at least six games. There was only one sweep in that span.
In fact, 44 percent of first-round series in Olympic years were upsets, and in each of those seasons, a No. 1 and No. 2 seed were eliminated in Round 1. Since 2000, five Presidents’ Trophy-winning teams lost in their opening series.
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Let’s take a look at three higher-seeded teams most likely to be upset in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
Opponent: Columbus Blue Jackets
The Penguins have made it past the second round just twice since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, and that streak of playoff failures could continue.
There are a few issues with Pittsburgh, one being its poor possession numbers. The Penguins don’t possess the puck consistently, and while some of these struggles can be attributed to the losses of defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin to injuries, the team as a whole hasn’t fared well since the calendar turned to 2014. The chart below illustrates the Penguins’ inability to possess the puck and out-shoot teams during the regular season.
If health isn’t an issue for Pittsburgh and key players such as Letang, Martin and superstar center Evgeni Malkin are on the ice and playing well, possession might not be a problem for the Penguins. But it’s certainly something to watch for.
Another potential problem for the Penguins in Round 1 is the goaltending of Marc Andre-Fleury. The former No. 1 overall draft pick has a horrible 4.02 goals against average (43 goals allowed in 11 games) over the last two postseasons. He hasn’t posted a save percentage above .900 in the last four playoff runs, and his career 2.73 postseason GAA is well above the starting goaltenders on other Eastern Conference contenders, such as Boston’s Tuukka Rask (2.14) and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist (2.28).
If Fleury struggles again, Pittsburgh will have to turn to veteran backup Tomas Vokoun, who played pretty well in the playoffs last year (.933 SV%, 2.01 GAA) but hasn’t seen action this season because of a blood cot issue. Vokoun is ready to play if needed, but his lack of work this season makes him a bit unreliable.
Columbus plays a physical brand of hockey and out-works its opponents almost every night. The wild card for the Blue Jackets is starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. If the 25-year-old netminder plays well, especially when his team is on the penalty kill, Columbus could steal this series. The Blue Jackets have a clear advantage in net.
Opponent: Minnesota Wild
The Avalanche are a young team, and many of their best players — including Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog – have little or no playoff experience. Making matters worse are the losses of veterans Jan Hejda and Torrey Mitchell, who will miss the start of Round 1 because of injuries. Duchene was enjoying a career season with 70 points in 71 games before suffering a knee injury that will keep him out of the lineup for a few more weeks.
Without a healthy roster, the Avalanche’s poor possession numbers finally might cost them in the playoffs, where the team’s speed and skill might not be as effective when the game slows down and the emphasis on defense is heightened. According to Extra Skater, the Avs were the fourth-worst possession team in the regular season.
These injuries and possession struggles are huge concerns for Colorado, especially against a Wild team that plays physical and excels defensively. Minnesota finished seventh in GAA, and its blue line features a superstar defenseman in Ryan Suter and a young phenom in Jonas Brodin. The Wild’s three best forwards — Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville — have a combined 129 games of playoff experience.
Minnesota’s advantage in depth, skill and playoff experience on the blue line will be a major factor in this series. Colorado needs No. 1 goalie Semyon Varlamov to stand on his head for this team to reach Round 2.
St. Louis Blues
Opponent: Chicago Blackhawks
The Blues were the Presidents’ Trophy favorites entering the final month of the regular season, but a six-game losing streak before the playoffs has given St. Louis a tough matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champions.
St. Louis’ major trade deadline acquisition was goaltender Ryan Miller, who’s struggled in recent weeks. Miller has given up three or more goals in nine of his last 11 games, and he’s posted a .865 save percentage in his last five games. The 33-year-old veteran has a career playoff record of 25-22 with a .917 save percentage and a 2.47 GAA, which are just average numbers.
The Blues need Miller to have a fantastic series against a Blackhawks team loaded with offensive skill and that finished second in goals scored and 10th in power-play percentage. If Miller struggles, this series could be over in five games.
The Blues also struggled to score in April with just seven goals in eight games, and injuries to top forwards David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Vladimir Tarasenko could result in these woes continuing. Chicago has two elite defense pairings (Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya/Niklas Hjalmarsson) that will make life difficult for St. Louis’ top six forwards. The Blues need their top scorers to produce consistently because they don’t have as much bottom-six scoring as the Blackhawks.