Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Stanley Cup playoffs have a different look in 2014 and the NHL hopes the new formula can make the most exciting part of the season even better.
The NHL underwent drastic realignment for the 2013-14 campaign, and the changes didn't stop with the formation of new divisions. The playoffs also received a facelift, as the league brass attempt to create more divisional rivalries in the early part of the postseason. In fact, seven of the eight first-round series will consist of playoff battles between divisional foes.
Gone is re-seeding after the first round, as the league eliminated that process in favor of a fixed bracket structure. Like the NCAA tournament, fans can now fill out a bracket before the playoffs begin and see how they fare as prognosticators.
The league hopes the changes add up to a better overall playoff experience for fans. For the players, the road to the Promised Land may look different, but the ultimate goal of raising Lord Stanley's Cup remains unchanged.
BOSTON VS. DETROIT
Boston won the Atlantic Division and finished as the top seed in the East, meaning it gets to host Detroit, recipient of the conference's second wild card spot, in the opening round. Considering the clubs spent decades playing in opposing conferences, this marks the first postseason encounter between the old Original Six rivals since the 1957 Stanley Cup semifinals. Neither Boston head coach Claude Julien nor his counterpart with the Red Wings, Mike Babcock, was even born the last time Bruins tangled with Detroit in the postseason, so this is a rare treat for hockey fans.
Boston enters the playoffs after winning the Presidents' Trophy for the first time since 1989-90 and seems poised to win the East for a second straight season. The Red Wings, however, battled through tremendous injury problems all year long to qualify for a 23rd straight playoffs and have too much pride to simply roll over for the mighty Bruins. The superior depth of defensive-minded Boston should win out in the end, but not before Detroit takes a game or two.
Bruins in 6
TAMPA BAY VS. MONTREAL
The Lightning host Montreal in the other part of the Atlantic Division bracket, with the winner taking on the survivor of the Boston-Detroit matchup in the second round.
This series marks only the second playoff meeting between these franchises, as Tampa Bay made quick work of the Canadiens back in the 2004 conference quarterfinals, sweeping Montreal in four games. In contrast, the 2013-14 regular-season series was extremely close with the clubs splitting four meetings, three of which were decided after regulation. The largest margin of victory came in the most recent encounter when Tampa Bay recorded a 3-1 home win on April 1.
One of the biggest story lines heading into this series is the status of Tampa Bay starting goaltender Ben Bishop, who left a game against Toronto on April 8 and missed the final three games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. The Lightning aren't saying if Bishop will be ready to go for Game 1, but if he isn't, Anders Lindback will fill in between the pipes. Although the 25-year-old Swede was just 8-12-2 with a 2.90 GAA and .891 save percentage this season, his play since Bishop went down to injury earlier this month should inspire more confidence. Lindback was named the NHL's First Star for the final week of the regular season after posting a 3-0 record with a goals against average of 0.67 and a .975 save percentage.
Both teams feature capable snipers, but Lightning captain Steven Stamkos will likely be the most dangerous player on the ice for either team. Not unlike the regular season meetings, expect this playoff series to be a close one that will go down to the wire.
Lightning in 7
PITTSBURGH VS. COLUMBUS
Like the Red Wings, Columbus is in the East playoffs after switching conferences prior to the 2013-14 season. However, while Detroit is busy making its 23rd straight trip to the playoffs, the Blue Jackets are in the second season for only the second time in club history.
Columbus was swept by Detroit in its only postseason appearance in 2009, so it will be looking for its first playoff victory in Game 1 of this series against Pittsburgh. However, the Penguins, who cruised to a Metropolitan Division title this season, won all five encounters against the Blue Jackets in 2013-14 and are heavy favorites in this opening round series.
The Blue Jackets can't boast the firepower of Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, but Columbus' best hope to pull off the upset resides in its crease. Sergei Bobrovsky, the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner, is the best player for the Blue Jackets, while Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off a string of disappointing playoff appearances. Still, unless Fleury comes apart at the seams, the Pens should be able to overcome this first-round test against a wild card foe.
Considering the geographical proximity of these two franchises, this playoff meeting could mark the beginnings of a developing rivalry between the Jackets and Pens. Of course, Columbus needs to show it can be a consistent postseason participant to help that potential rivalry flourish.
Penguins in 6
NEW YORK RANGERS VS. PHILADELPHIA
If nothing else, the new division-centric playoff scheme will reunite the Flyers and Rangers in the playoffs. The clubs have battled as divisional foes for decades, but this marks the first postseason encounter between the franchises since 1997, when Philly beat the Blueshirts in the conference finals.
New York claimed home-ice advantage in this series by finishing second to Pittsburgh in the division and that could loom large. The Flyers and Rangers split four meetings in 2013-14, with each team winning twice at its home arena. New York has claimed eight in a row at home against Philadelphia, which last won at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 2011.
The Rangers managed to limit space for Flyers star centerman Claude Giroux and his linemmates during the season series and that could spell doom for Philly, which needs Giroux to be its best player to compete at top form.
Expect New York to grind out a series win with its superior defensive depth and the always steady goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist.
The winner of this series will face Columbus or Pittsburgh in the second round.
Rangers in 7
ANAHEIM VS. DALLAS
The Ducks survived some ups and downs during the stretch run to claim the West's top seed. But as Anaheim found out last spring, being one of the top seeds doesn't count for much at this time of the year.
Anaheim was second in the West last season and lost in seven games to seventh- seeded Detroit in the opening round. That disappointing loss dropped the Ducks to 1-4 in playoff series since winning the franchise's only Stanley Cup in 2007.
The Stars, who grabbed the West's last wild card spot, won two of their three meetings with the Ducks this season, but Anaheim should be able to avoid another early exit in the playoff matchup. The Ducks boast superior depth at both ends of the ice and have the added motivation of moving past last spring's first-round loss.
One reason to root against an upset in this series is that would mean the end of the road for Ducks winger Teemu Selanne, who is retiring at the end of the season at the age of 43.
Expect Selanne's career to last a few more weeks at least, as Anaheim overcomes the pesky Stars.
Ducks in 6
LOS ANGELES VS. SAN JOSE
This series is one of those matchups that makes you feel bad for whichever team is on the losing end. Both the Kings and Sharks have the pieces to go on a run to the Stanley Cup Finals, so it's kind of a shame only one of them can survive this series.
After winning the franchise's first Cup in 2012, the Kings made it to the West finals last spring and the club certainly inspires more confidence at this time of year than San Jose. The Sharks have experienced tons of success during the regular season over the past decade or so, but have never been able to win the West and earn a trip to the Cup Finals. Last spring, San Jose's season ended at the hands of the Kings, who outlasted the Sharks in seven games before falling to Chicago in the West finals.
These Pacific Division rivals played a close five-game season series in 2013-14, with the Kings owning a 3-1-1 edge. The teams combined for just 21 goals and skated in four games decided by a goal. We could see a carbon copy of last season's playoff encounter in 2014, as it's hard to pick against the battle-tested Kings.
The winner of this series moves on to face either Anaheim or Dallas in the second round.
Kings in 7
COLORADO VS. MINNESOTA
Making the playoffs was reason enough to award Patrick Roy with the Jack Adams Trophy for the 2013-14 season, but the rookie head coach also claimed first place in the highly competitive Central Division for good measure.
Five of the West's eight playoff teams came out of the Central and Colorado topped them all in the regular season, including the powerful St. Louis Blues and the defending Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks. Now that the playoffs are here, the Avalanche will have to prove themselves all over again.
The Wild are a trendy upset pick in this series, and while they could give Colorado a difficult time in the opening round, it would be unwise to underestimate Roy and his young Avalanche roster. The fiery head coach has his players believing they are world-beaters and that type of fervor can fuel a deep playoff run.
Colorado could see its magical season end in Round 2 when it faces the winner of the St. Louis-Chicago series, but the Avs have more than enough firepower to overcome Minnesota in this opening series.
Avalanche in 5
ST. LOUIS VS. CHICAGO
Like the Pacific Division battle between the Kings and Sharks, this series will force one of the league's top teams out of the playoffs in the opening round.
St. Louis and its long-suffering fan base need this one a lot more than the Blackhawks, who won their second Stanley Cup title in four years last spring. The Blues claimed three of five regular-season encounters between the clubs, but only outscored Chicago by a 17-14 margin in the 2013-14 series.
Similar to the Kings, another team that dominates in the all-important puck possession game, the Blackhawks are built to outlast the opposition in a seven-game series. The fact that St. Louis stumbled down the stretch, resulting in a second-place finish in the Central does not bode well for the Blues.
St. Louis battled numerous injuries while losing its last six games of the regular season and was outscored by a 22-5 margin during that major season-ending slump. Goaltender Ryan Miller, acquired from Buffalo at the trade deadline, was not immune to the team's struggles and he has a great deal to prove in this series before he's scheduled to hit free agency this summer.
The Blues expect to get some key pieces back for the start of this series, as captain David Backes and fellow forwards T.J. Oshie and Vladimir Sobotka are in line to return to action in Game 1. Still, the club expects to be without forwards Brenden Morrow, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Tarasenko at the start of the series, and the blow to their depth will make facing the loaded Blackhawks even more difficult to contend with.
Chicago, meanwhile, is getting captain Jonathan Toews and star winger Patrick Kane for Game 1. Both players have won Conn Smythe trophies for the Blackhawks in recent years and they could each play a big role in getting Chicago into the second round this season.
Blackhawks in 7