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article imageOp-Ed: Which four hopefuls will survive to continue Stanley Cup quest?

By Mark J. Allan     Apr 30, 2015 in Sports
Stanley Cup pretenders are being separated from the real contenders with half of the original 16 hopefuls eliminated in the first round.
The guessing game is in full swing as the puck drops today to launch the second round of the NHL playoffs.
Rangers vs. Capitals
There are good reasons why New York won the President’s Trophy for the most team points in the regular season.
A resurgent Rick Nash leading a crew of speedy forwards, an already-strong defense bolstered by the addition of Keith Yandle, and world-class netminder Henrik Lundqvist, seemingly recovered from a late-season neck injury, help to create a formidable opponent.
The Rangers, who won their first-round series in five low-scoring games with the Penguins, demonstrated they can win one-goal playoff games. They also have the firepower and transition game to win high-scoring ones even without injured winger Mats Zuccarello.
The Capitals, eliminated by the Rangers with Game Seven losses in 2012 and 2013, want to dispel their reputation as a team that cannot win in the post-season.
They began by outlasting the New York Islanders in a seven-game first-round matchup. Washington, which won only one of four regular-season meetings with the Rangers, has an edge in the physical game, but the Capitals might be hurting after going the distance with the hard-hitting Isles.
Besides goal-scoring king Alexander Ovechkin and playmaking wizard Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps have blueline additions Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, emerging star center Evgeny Kuznetsov and much-improved netminder Braden Holtby.
New coach Barry Trotz has injected an unaccustomed defensive conscience. Combined with a still-potent power play, their newfound balance increases the Capitals' odds of winning in the post-season.
This evenly matched series could go either way, but Alain Vigneault’s Rangers are hungry to grab the Cup that eluded them a year ago.
Rangers in seven
Canadiens vs. Lightning
Regular-season results don’t usually matter in the playoffs, but Tampa Bay did sweep all five encounters with Montreal.
Although sniper Steven Stamkos had only one assist in the first round, Montreal counterpart Max Pacioretty scored only twice and one was an empty-netter.
Montreal’s defense, which includes aging Russians Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar, could have trouble handling Tampa’s team speed.
Led by center Tyler Johnson’s six goals and an assist in the first round, Tampa’s second line with wingers Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat made up for the top line’s lack of production. Little-used but highly skilled rookie Jonathan Drouin is a wild card for the Lightning, who led all teams in regular-season scoring.
None of Montreal’s lines inspire confidence with consistent scoring and their defense is not as deep as the Lightning’s, although P.K. Subban gives the Canadiens a quick-strike threat.
So how did Montreal compile a 50-22-10 record to finish two points above Tampa in the East? His name is Carey Price, he’s the best goalie in the world and he gives the Habs a significant edge over Ben Bishop.
Lightning in six
Ducks vs. Flames
As hard as it to bet against constant underdog Calgary and brilliant motivator Bob Hartley, the Flames have a much bigger second-round challenge than the flawed Canucks.
Calgary might win the opening game against the rusty Ducks, who eliminated Winnipeg in a first-round sweep, but the Ducks are big, mean and deep.
As usual, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are difficult to contain. Although Dennis Wideman, Kris Russell and T.J. Brodie have courageously covered for the loss of blueline stud Mark Giordano, Calgary’s limited depth on defense could cost them against relentless Anaheim.
If the Flames have an edge anywhere, it’s in goal, where they pit veteran Jonas Hiller (a former Duck) against playoff-untested youngsters Frederik Andersen and John Gibson.
Ducks in six
Blackhawks vs. Wild
This fascinating matchup involves a veteran team accustomed to winning championships against an up-and-coming squad that roared into the post-season with a torrid second half.
Chicago’s core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is formidable. Faced with the realization that some of the core will be traded in the off-season due to a salary-cap crunch, the veteran Hawks are expected to make a strong push for their third Cup in six years.
Minnesota, with its best lineup ever, would love to avenge playoff setbacks to the ‘Hawks in 2013 and last year.
The Wild’s deep forward group includes veterans Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek and Chris Stewart as well as youngsters Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle.
Chicago figures to have an edge on defense, although Ryan Suter and the rest of the Wild blueliners are not shabby.
Bottom line: This series will be decided by goaltending. Devan Dubnyk was a revelation after Minnesota rescued him from Arizona in January. A grateful Dubnyk became a Vezina candidate and saved the Wild’s season.
Veteran Corey Crawford and towering rookie Scott Darling took turns bailing each other out in the first round. While Dubnyk is playoff-untested, neither Chicago goalie currently inspires confidence.
Wild in seven
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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