NHL Playoffs First Round Preview: A Battle for the Blackhawks

Will the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks even survive this year's first round?

Wednesday marks the beginning of the NHL’s playoffs, and with it comes the excitement that other sports’ playoff systems just can't match. Within a seven-game series, new rivalries can be born and old rivalries can boil over into physical battles, with every game feeling like a Game 7. And unlike most sports, if previous playoffs have taught us anything, it's that anyone can truly be beat.

This year’s Presidents Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals, enter the playoffs with the best chance to hoist the Cup -- 17.51 percent according to our projections. Keep in mind, though: only two Presidents Trophy winners since 2004-05 have managed to win the Stanley Cup.

Here's a look at each first-round series, ranking them by how close our projections think they'll be.

8. Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Projected winner: Washington 73.01%

Washington enters the playoffs as the clear favorite to win it all after recording 120 points in the regular season, the first team to do so since the Capitals in the 2009-10 season. Alex Ovechkin scored 50 goals this season to lead the Caps’ offensive attack that was second in goals per game this season. On the other side, goalie Braden Holtby led all goaltenders with 48 wins, only losing 9 times in regulation. 

Washington faces a Flyers team that beat them twice in overtime, both times with Holtby in net, even while he posted a stellar .926 save percentage against them. Philadelphia pushed their way into the final wild card spot in the East, closing the season 17-6-4. The Flyers' offense will have to rely on their leading scorer Wayne Simmonds, who scored 47 points in their wins and just 13 points in their losses.

According to our projections, the most likely outcome is Washington in 5.

7. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings

Projected winner: Tampa Bay 66.78%

Tampa Bay limps into the playoffs after letting a chance to win the Atlantic Division slip through their fingers. They'll be without leading scorer Steven Stamkos, who will miss the rest of the season due to injury. However, they do expect to have key contributors Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov back for the series opener. Without Stamkos, Tampa will have to lean on Goalie Ben Bishop, who led the league in Goals Against Average (2.06) and was second in Save Percentage (.926).

Detroit qualified for the playoffs with the least amount of points in the Eastern Conference and have the lowest nERD (-0.11), or expected goal differential against a league-average squad, of any team in the playoffs. The Red Wings will be spirited by Pavel Datsyuk’s announcement that he will be retiring after this season and hope their veteran leadership can push a hobbled Lightning team around, who they split the season series with.

According to our projections, the most likely outcome is Tampa Bay in 5.

6. Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild

Projected winner: Dallas 58.21%

The Stars finished the season strong, winning 8 of 10 to hold off St. Louis and claim the Central Division crown. Dallas boasts three players who finished in the top 10 in goals scored this season, with Jamie Benn scoring 41 and centers Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza netting 33 each. The Stars’ Achilles heel may be in goal, where they must make a decision between veterans Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, both of whom ranked outside the top 20 in Goals Against Average and Save Percentage. They face a Minnesota team they defeated four out of five times this season that will rely on their defense to keep them in the series. While ranking ninth in Goals Against this season, the Wild struggle on the penalty kill, a place where Dallas excels.

According to our projections, the most likely outcome is Dallas in 7.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers

Projected winner: Pittsburgh 54.45%

Pittsburgh is on a tear entering the playoffs, winning 13 of their last 15 games, but they're dealing with a few untimely injuries. The Penguins will most likely be without Evgeni Malkin, who has been out since mid-March, but he has yet to be completely ruled out of the series due to an upper body injury. Goalies Marc Andre Fleury and Matt Murray are also questionable for the start of the series, although Fleury is back at practice following a concussion. In Malkin’s absence, the Pens still have plenty of offensive weapons, led by Sidney Crosby, first on the team in goals and points. He's been a big reason why Pittsburgh has led the NHL in goals per game (3.24) over the last 54 games of the season.

The Rangers have their own injury concerns with key defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi on the shelf. 

But as always, the Rangers will go as far as Henrik Lundqvist allows them. Over the last two years, that has included series victories over Pittsburgh, but the Rangers have struggled with the Penguins, especially lately, losing three games to Pittsburgh in March. The Rangers are always a tough out in the playoffs, and they do have the offensive firepower with Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard to give the Penguins problems if Fleury and Murray are not 100 percent healthy.

According to our projections, the most likely outcome is Pittsburgh in 7.

4. Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders

Projected winner: Florida 53.18%

Florida outlasted Tampa Bay down the stretch to win the Atlantic Division title. The Panthers’ mix of savvy veterans and young talent propelled them into the playoffs for the second time in the last 15 years. Florida’s overall lack of playoff experience can be overcome by their balanced scoring attack -- the Panthers have four players who scored at least 25 goals this season. Goalie Roberto Luongo has 50 playoff starts under his belt, including 24 in Vancouver’s 2011 Stanley Cup Final appearance.

New York will likely be without Jaroslav Halak, which means they'll roll with Thomas Greiss in net. Greiss has had a nice season, posting a 23-11-4 record with a Save Percentage of .925. The Islanders will try to put the physicality on display that lead them to be second in the league in hits. Offensively, John Tavares will look to stay hot entering the postseason. He contributed nine of his team leading 70 points over his last five games.

According to our projections, the most likely outcome is Florida in 7.

3. Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks

Projected winner: Los Angeles 52.66%

Los Angeles stumbled a bit at the end of the season, which led to their second place finish in the Pacific. After missing the postseason last year, the Kings look to keep their streak alive of winning in even years, doing so in 2012 and 2014. Los Angeles has mostly the same cast of characters that have guided them through the playoffs in the past, with Jonathan Quick being the most important of all. Quick was first in the NHL in games played as a goalie with 68 and posted a 2.22 Goals Against Average. He will be protected by a stellar defense lead by Drew Doughty who led the NHL in Defensive Point Shares (7.1).

San Jose hopes to avenge their 2014 Stanley Cup Playoff loss to the Kings, where they blew a 3-0 series lead in the first round. The Sharks’ offense looks to continue their dominance against Quick this season. Quick had no answer for San Jose, going 0-3 and allowing five goals in each of the games. Joe Pavelski’s 38 Goals -- including a league-leading 11 game-winning goals -- leads a Sharks’ offense that ranked third in goals per game and fourth on the power play.

According to our projections, the most likely outcome is Los Angeles in 7.

2. Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators

Projected winner: Anaheim 51.98%

Anaheim’s mediocre start to the season forced Coach Bruce Boudreau to make some quick changes, essentially starting from scratch. Since January 1, they've been the hottest team in the league, going 31-10-4. The Ducks have parlayed their strong defense and effectiveness on both the power play and penalty kill from the bottom to the top of the division. 

The Ducks will most likely use both John Gibson and Frederik Andersen in goal this series, as they've both played very well during the second half of the season. 

They face a Nashville team they have not seen since mid-November. The Predators boast two 30 goal scorers in Filip Forsberg and James Neal and one of the best scoring defensemen in Shea Weber. A major key to the series will be puck control, as both teams ranked in the top five in Fenwick For Percentage, which is a calculation based on the number of shots a team takes and the number they allow. Distance traveled for both teams may also play a role in this matchup, as the distance between Anaheim and Nashville is 1,700 miles.

According to our projections, the most likely outcome is Anaheim in 7.

1. St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Projected winner: St. Louis 50.03%

St. Louis looks to exercise their playoff demons and advance out of the first round for the second time since 2000. The Blues will need to flex defensively behind the efforts of goalie Brian Elliott, who helped St. Louis finish fourth in goals allowed. On offense, the Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko ranked fourth in the NHL in goals with 40, almost doubling the output of any of his teammates. The offense will need to take advantage of a Blackhawks defense that will be without Duncan Keith for Game 1, as he serves the final game of a suspension.

Chicago will once again need some playoff magic from Corey Crawford, after another great season in goal and the combination of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews is still one of the most potent in the league. Kane finished the season first in points (106) and Offensive Point Shares (12.4) this year. 

The matchup to watch in this series will be the Blackhawks' power play unit against the penalty killers of the Blues as both units rank second in the league respectively. Unlike any other series, although St. Louis is the projected winner by the slightest of margins, the most likely outcome has Chicago winning. The key will be if Chicago can go up 3-2 with a chance to close out the Blues on home ice in Game 6.

According to our projections, the most likely outcome is Chicago in 6.