NHL playoffs preview: Return of Patrick Kane can carry Chicago Blackhawks to Stanley Cup

Ahead of the start of the NHL playoffs on Wednesday, Rob McKenzie breaks down the match-ups and predicts the outcome of the first-round series.

Patrick Kane, centre, who is expected to return to the Chicago Blackhawks as the Stanley Cup play-offs begin, could be key to their championship aspirations. Nam Y Huh / AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

After his Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated from the play-offs last year, Mario Lemieux, NHL legend and team owner, explained what it takes to win in the post-season.

"You've got to have some guys in the playoffs with grit, with character, as well as speed," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“Look at Montreal, the way they’re built. They have some smaller forwards, but they’re all speedy and they’ve got grit, and they’ve got character.”

And in two months time they will have the Stanley Cup. Carey Price will be play-offs MVP, PK Subban will burnish his legend, Max Pacioretty will score the winning goal and Sainte Catherine Street will erupt into a madhouse.

If only, if only ...

As a former Montrealer, I wish the Canadiens would end the drought of 22 years — far too long; unthinkably long — since a Canadian team won the trophy. But wishful thinking is more wishing than thinking. Take away the wishing, and the team that I have to think is most likely to claim the Cup is not Montreal but the Chicago Blackhawks.

RELATED:

The key is Patrick Kane. More precisely, Kane’s left clavicle; it broke when he crashed into the boards during a February 24 game against Florida. The initial forecast was that he would be out for 12 weeks — in other words, until the early part of the third round of the play-offs.

The Hawks are not the same without him. They become a difficult but manageable opponent; whereas with Kane, they tend eventually to overwhelm benighted defenders.

When the St Louis coach Ken Hitchcock was asked in what ways the Hawks are different without Kane, he replied, as per the Chicago Sun-Times: "Every way. It's easy to play when your focus is on fewer players. They've got so many good players, but you can't check everybody. And one of the things that Chicago has is a sense of timing. They've gotten Cups and wins and play-off-round wins because their key guys have done it when it's all been on the line."

Speaking of a sense of timing, there was Kane back and skating at a team practice on March 30. Taking shots, which tests the shoulder. And then on Monday came surprising news: he had been cleared for contact and could play as soon as Game 1 against Nashville on Wednesday.

Which might be all it takes to turbo-charge an already strong team all the way to the title.

Back in October, I wrote in our season preview: "The finalists in the West will be two of the conference's big three — Anaheim, Chicago, Los Angeles. For the Eastern finalists, it will be among Boston, Montreal and — let's try an upstart — the New York Islanders, who finally have a decent goalie in Jaro Halak. Stanley Cup prediction: Anaheim over Montreal."

Five months later, Anaheim ended with the best record in the league. Yet the Ducks lack the feel of champions. They do not dominate. They have a phenomenal record in games decided by one goal (33-1-7) but, as the hockey blogger IJay Palansky has pointed out, a losing record in games decided by more than one goal (18-23). Neither of their goaltenders has closed out an NHL play-offs series. And, since 2009, the Ducks are 0-3 in Game 7s.

This is a team that puts itself in situations where it is vulnerable to a bit of bad luck.

And so Chicago it is.

Stanley Cup prediction: Chicago over Montreal in 6.

FIRST-ROUND PREDICTIONS

Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks v Winnipeg Jets

Ducks swept teams' season series 3-0 Even if Anaheim is overrated, they have enough fire power to beat Winnipeg. Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec has three successive shutouts. Anaheim in 5

Vancouver Canucks v Calgary Flames

Season series split 2-2 Vancouver has finesse, Calgary grit. With Ryan Miller healed, does scene-stealing understudy Eddie Lack still tend goal for Canucks? Calgary in 6

Central Division

St Louis Blues v Minnesota Wild

Season series split 2-2 Tight matchup. Wild's league-best penalty kill should blunt Blues' fourth-ranked power play. Rising Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko will be the difference. Blues in 7

Nashville Predators v Chicago Blackhawks

Hawks won season series 3-1 Nashville peaked too early: 28-9-4 in season's first half, 19-16-6 in second. Jonathan Toews's Hawks know the drill and peak for play-offs. Chicago in 4

Atlantic Division

Montreal Canadiens v Ottawa Senators

Senators won season series 3-1 Ottawa has a red-hot goalie in Andrew "The Hamburglar" Hammond; but Montreal has the world's best goalie in Carey Price. Montreal in 5

Tampa Bay Lightning v Detroit Red Wings

Lightning won season series 3-1 Tampa led league in goals with 262. Detroit's veteran experience will not be enough to hold back Tampa's unbridled youths. Tampa in 5

Metropolitan Division

New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins

Rangers won season series 3-1 First round always has one big upset. Maybe Sidney Crosby rises to the occasion, maybe Rangers' mediocre power play costs them. Pittsburgh in 7

Washington Capitals vs New York Islanders

Season series split 2-2 Capitals' Alex Ovechkin led league in goals. Two Isles, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, led league in hits. This could get brutal. Islanders in 7

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER @NatSportUAE