Playoff Predictions: Round 1, the conference finals and your eventual Cup champs

Let's just get this out of the way: nailing your 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs predictions is gonna be about as easy as teaching a cat to juggle, and I'm told cats aren't that dexterous.    

But oh-ho-ho, that's not going to stop Team theScore from trying.

Below, Justin Cuthbert, Ian McLaren and I look into our respective crystal balls and share what we see. 

Surely at least one of us will nail this ... won't we?

***

St. Louis vs. Minnesota

Bourne McLaren Cuthbert Consensus
St. Louis St. Louis St. Louis St. Louis

Don't let the unanimous pick fool you into thinking we don't believe it's going to be a close series. The Wild are no joke.

Nashville vs. Chicago

Bourne McLaren Cuthbert Consensus
Chicago Chicago Chicago Chicago

Nashville has a decided advantage in net, and has a killer corps of defenders. But the Blackhawks are still the Blackhawks, winners of two Cups in the past five years, and they still have their core intact with some quality additions around it.

Anaheim vs. Winnipeg

Bourne McLaren Cuthbert Consensus
Anaheim Winnipeg Winnipeg Winnipeg

Somewhere along the way, the Jets earned the reputation as one of the most difficult teams in hockey to play, and that has many believing they can go on a deep playoff run. I personally think Anaheim is a talented group who's in the playoffs for the fourth straight year - finally without LA and San Jose - who won't be content with round one failure, but there's no denying the Jets have the horses to succeed in the role of underdog.

Vancouver vs. Calgary

Bourne McLaren Cuthbert Consensus
Vancouver Calgary Calgary Calgary

The Flames' success hinges largely on young talents Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and T.J. Brodie, all of whom will be seeing their first NHL playoff action. The team here sees youthful exuberance (average age: 25.9) triumphing over veteran experience (average age: 28.3).

Montreal vs. Ottawa

Bourne McLaren Cuthbert Consensus
Montreal Ottawa Montreal Montreal

Montreal will be leaning heavily on Carey Price - particularly if top scorer Max Pacioretty misses a couple games in the early going - but the Habs 'tender is as equipped for the pressure as any player in hockey. And that Sens magic has to run out at some point, doesn't it? 

Tampa Bay vs. Detroit

Bourne McLaren Cuthbert Consensus
Tampa Bay Tampa Bay Tampa Bay Tampa Bay

Both squads have lineups sprinkled with bright young talent, but we'll give the edge to Tampa due to its defense and goaltending.

NY Rangers vs. Pittsburgh

Bourne McLaren Cuthbert Consensus
NY Rangers NY Rangers NY Rangers NY Rangers

The Rangers have a slight advantage with their forward depth, a slight advantage on the back end and a slight advantage in the crease. All told, the Rangers have a slight advantage. If Pittsburgh hopes to emerge victorious, it'll be up to its top-end talent (hiya Sid, hiya Geno) to outperform Rick Nash and company.

Washington vs. NY Islanders

Bourne McLaren Cuthbert Consensus
Washington Washington Washington Washington

Sigh ... this one hurts me personally. But the Capitals emerged as a true force in the second half of the season, while the Islanders stumbled down the stretch. The Caps' solid D and goaltending are well equipped to deal with the Isles' greatest strength - their offense - and they've got a couple dynamos up front that aren't going to be much fun for New York, either.

*****

And what about beyond Round 1, fellas?

Eastern Conference champion

Justin Bourne: New York Rangers

This ... this was a tough one. The Capitals have a real shot to get through. The Lightning have a real shot to get through. Hell, basically every team in the East could pull it off save for maybe Ottawa. But the Rangers have been there before, are well coached, and aren't lacking skill at any one position. Being the incumbent East champions is enough to earn the nod from me.

Ian McLaren: Washington Capitals

This is the year the Capitals finally break through, and it's because head coach Barry Trotz has found a way to get this club to play at both ends of the ice. Washington brings a fifth-ranked regular-season goal differential into the postseason, with an offense anchored by stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and a defense bolstered by the likes of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. The X-factors are Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov, both of whom are set to step up their games on the big stage.

Justin Cuthbert: Tampa Bay Lightning

Speed on speed on speed. The Lightning, who have wowed with their pace all season, won’t necessarily be able to out-tempo their conference final opponent, but they will outscore them. Tampa has an amazing ability to create offense without mortgaging the back end. Also, the Lightning have played the Red Wings, Canadiens and Rangers 12 times over the season, losing once.

And I’m not turning my back on my preseason pick now.

Western Conference champion

Justin Bourne: Chicago Blackhawks

Picking chalk is a real thrill-a-minute, isn't it? I'll keep it short: in a year there's no clear-cut favorite, you can't go wrong with picking the maybe-not-clear-cut-but-still-probably favorite. These fellas can elaborate.

Ian McLaren: Chicago Blackhawks

If there's anything close to a sure thing in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's the Blackhawks playing for their third championship in six years. Sure, they finished with the fourth-highest point total in the conference, and the St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild will be looking to assert themselves as legitimate contenders. But in the absence of the Los Angeles Kings, who barely kept Chicago out of the finals last year, the Blackhawks - who are set to get even better when Patrick Kane returns - remain the class of the West until further notice.

Justin Cuthbert: Chicago Blackhawks

A how-to on surviving the Central bloodbath: bring ice, gauze and experience. 

The Hawks may be the three-seed, but they have the advantage of being there before and beating them before. But one thing that has gone unnoticed this season is, with all that firepower, the Blackhawks have kept pucks out of their own end better than any team in the West. They survive the Central and pick on whoever emerges from the Pacific. 

Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe winner

Justin Bourne: Chicago Blackhawks

Can't you just see them getting past Nashville, getting a healthy Kane back right when they face a team (either St. Louis or Minnesota) coming off a seven-game grind of a series, then strutting into a Conference final against a Pacific Division team they could dust, allowing them to rest up before the finals? They've certainly got the skill. If they get by the early rounds, I really like their odds.

Conn Smythe: Jonathan Toews

Few teams are as dependent on one guy to be their everything as the Blackhawks are. If they win, you know Toews played like a stud.

Ian McLaren: Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin will cement his legacy as one of the game's greatest players while head coach Barry Trotz, bringing his coaching pedigree to the most talented roster he's overseen, will guide the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. This team plays a strong game at both ends of the ice, and kind of went under the radar during the regular season, Ovechkin's scoring aside. This team is deep, boasts a strong mix of youth and experience and has a goaltender ready to take center stage.

Conn Smythe: Braden Holtby

Holtby owns the fourth-highest save percentage (.923) among the 16 starting playoff goalies, and has a career postseason mark of .931. Supported by a strong cast in front of him, he's set to test his mettle at the highest level, and will prove himself worthy with an MVP performance.

Justin Cuthbert: Tampa Bay Lightning

From start to finish, the Lightning have been the most efficient team in the NHL. Full stop. They are underrated, understated and hungry. You will learn the names - even the long ones like Namestnikov - when they skate the bruised, beaten and beleaguered West champion into the ground.

Conn Smythe: Steven Stamkos

For as impressive as the Lightning have been, Stamkos hasn’t necessarily been stellar. But he will be. The Lightning captain empties the full reservoir in his reserve tank.

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Playoff Predictions: Round 1, the conference finals and your eventual Cup champs
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