Which playoff teams are the biggest surprises?

The Washington Capitals just squeaked in to the post-season and now face the defending Stanley Cup champs, the Boston Bruins. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

Tim Kolupanowich: The NHL playoffs are set to begin on Wednesday and with all due respect to Andy Williams, this really is the most wonderful time of the year. There will be many story lines to follow in the next two months: Can the Boston Bruins repeat? How will the Florida Panthers fare in the postseason for the the first time since 2000? Are the St. Louis Blues for real? We’ll have plenty of time to get to that, so in this segment of Two For Roughing, we’ll focus on the team’s that surprised us the most by either making it, or not making it.

For me, the most surprising team to make the playoffs is the Panthers. They finished last in the Eastern Conference last season with 72 points, but completely turned it around this season to finish with 94 points and a Southeast Division title. GM Dale Tallon gets a lot of credit here. He not only hired Kevin Dineen, who had spent the past six seasons coaching the Portland Pirates in the American League, but he assembled a team of castoffs and spare parts to go along with a few established players that managed to come together in just one season. You had to expect improvement, but anyone picking the Panthers to make the playoffs in September would have been deemed mad. What do you think of the Panthers chances?

Jeff Blay: The Panthers have been a big surprise all season long; I think people still had their doubts about the Cats even after the All-Star break, but they’ve now clinched and have a chance to prove people wrong in the post-season. Tallon’s excellent work bringing in Tomas Fleischmann, who leads the team with 27 goals, 34 assists and 61 points, two-way defenseman Brian Campbell and rejuvenated forward Kris Versteeg, who boast 53 and 54 points respectively, were instrumental towards the team’s success this year. Longest serving Panther Stephen Weiss has also thrived alongside the new additions, scoring 20 goals and 57 points – second on the team. It will certainly be interesting to see how Florida fairs in the playoffs with their inexperience, but the additions of Sean Bergenheim, who had a stellar post-season with Tampa Bay last year, Wojtek Wolski and the recently returned Scottie Upshall to the line up will provide some extra depth for the Panthers – a team that really has nothing to lose.

Another team that surprised many down the stretch is the Washington Capitals, who’ve really pushed to earn their spot during the last 15 games of the season. We discussed Washington in our eighth seed playoff predictions TFR, and we both agreed they had the most pressure on them to earn a birth. Luckily, their top players have stepped up as of late, but they will need to buckle down even more as they face the defending champs in the first round. What do you think of the Capitals’ chances against  the Boston brutes?

TK: That’s tough, the Caps are going up against a very experienced Bruins team who is looking to become the first repeat winner since the Red Wings in 1998. On one side Alex Ovechkin is heating up at just the right time and they have Nicklas Backstrom back as well. On the other side of things, Washington was ranked 21st in goals against this season while Boston was third in goals for and their goaltending tandem of Brayden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth is very young, just 22 and 24 respectively. With just nine games of playoff experience between them, all belonging to Neuvirth, so that could be an issue regardless of how well they look now. Don’t forget, Seymon Varlamov looked unbeatable in 2008-09, building a 2-0 lead against the Penguins in Round 2 before falling apart, losing four of the next five and allowing 4.29 goals per game, so you have to be concerned there.

Going in another direction, looking at teams that didn’t make the playoffs, I’m surprised to find the Anaheim Ducks outside the Western Conference’s top eight. After a 99-point season last year and boasting arguably the best line in hockey in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, they seemed like a lock back in September. They struggled to score and things went south early and often, hitting rock bottom in December where they went 3-8-2. They had to go 17-6-5 in January and February just to get out of the league’s basement. It looked for a while like they might make a historical climb back into the playoff picture, but they were already in too deep of a hole at that point.

JB: Anaheim is definitely a team you’re used to seeing play more than 82 games; they’ll need to make a move or two over the summer to get back on track for next season.

I was surprised that another Western Conference team didn’t make it. As tight as the race was, the Dallas Stars really showed some promise leading up to the final week of regular season action, and even held the Pacific Division lead at one point. With solid seasons from Louis Eriksson (26 goals, 71 points) sophomore Jamie Benn  (26 goals, 63 points) and Michael Ryder (35 goals, 62 points), it seems like Dallas was back in the playoff picture and had the fire power to get things done down the stretch. However, the Stars dismal 3-7-0 record in their last ten games didn’t help the cause, as the Kings, Sharks and Coyotes all heated up.

As for the Eastern Conference, the Buffalo Sabres usually find a way to squeak in as well, and Ryan Miller was looking pretty scary. I thought the Winnipeg Jets gave a commendable effort this season and could very well have grabbed the eighth seed. They exceeded expectations and they will definitely be a team to watch over the next few seasons.

It’s good to see the Ottawa Senators preparing for the post-season, and they will certainly provide a tough matchup for the Rangers, which could turn into a lengthy and physical series.

That concludes this segment of Two For Roughing, stay tuned for more discussion later in the week.

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