NHL Playoff Picture: What We Know (and Don’t Know) So Far

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Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks kisses the Stanley Cup trophy. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On October 7, the 2015-16 NHL season began. Now, in mid-April, it’s time for the post-season to begin, or as some fans call it, the “real NHL season.” Starting this week, 16 teams will begin their pursuit of the most cherished prize in all of hockey, Lord Stanley’s Cup. And 15 of those teams will end the season with broken hearts.

Here are the matchups for the first round of the playoffs:

St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators

Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild

Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers

Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders

Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers

This season is a bit strange for the NHL; it marks the first time since 1970 that the playoffs lack a Canadian team. That’s right, the Cup-winning team will once again be an American club, as it has been since 1994 when the New York Rangers ended their 50-year Cup drought.

What we’ll look at here is each of the playoff matchups for the first round. We’ll break down each series and let you know which teams have a better shot at making it to the next round and why. Here’s our breakdown of the first round of the 2015-16 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks with the Stanley Cup | Bruce Bennett/Getty-Images

Head to head 2016: The Blues took the season series with a 3-2 record. However, the Blues were outscored 14 goals to 12 during those five games.

Pressure: The Blackhawks are looking to become the first team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. If they do so, they will become the first team of the salary-cap era to accomplish the feat.

St. Louis Pros: The Blues can roll four productive offensive lines and they also have depth at defense, making them a solid all-around team.

St. Louis Cons: They have the lowest goals scored per game of any team in the playoffs. At a time when goals are at a premium, this is not a good stat. Goalie Brian Elliott was a beast in the regular season, but his playoff stats are lacking with his career playoff save percentage at .897. These two stats don’t bode well for St. Louis.

Chicago Pros: They’ve been down this road before. The playoffs are nothing new to them. If things get dicey, they will not panic, as they showed in 2014 when they fell into a 0-2 hole against the Blues and won the series in six games. They also have the NHL’s leading scorer in Patrick Kane, which is always a positive.

Chicago Cons: The team will lack star defenseman Duncan Keith for Game 1, which will hurt. There are also rumors, according to the NHL Network, that Keith is not close to 100% healthy. If that’s the case, the Blackhawks, who rely heavily on their top defenseman, could be in trouble.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 7

Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
The Anaheim Ducks | Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Head to head 2016: The Predators took the season series with the Ducks 2-1-0, outscoring the Ducks 10-7 during the series.

Pressure: The Ducks are accustomed to owning the Pacific Division. They tend to jump to a lead early in the season and run that lead up over the course of 82 games. The Ducks did not do that this year. They didn’t clinch the Pacific title until the final game of the season. The team was in danger of missing the playoffs early in the season and they turned it around. Fans will remember their poor start, and any slip-up early in this series could cause a dip in confidence.

Anaheim Pros: The Ducks have played well in net and on defense this year, allowing the fewest goals in the NHL. That’s huge heading into the playoffs. The defense-first Ducks are a different team this year and it will give the opposition fits. Another huge confidence booster is the fact that the Ducks finished the season first in both penalty kill and power play in the NHL.

Anaheim Cons: If the defense falters, will the offense be there to pick them up? There 218 goals for this season does not inspire a great deal of confidence.

Nashville Pros: Nashville has been a defense-first team for a lot longer than Anaheim, so if things don’t go their way, and they falter for a game or two, they won’t panic. With the Ducks scoring dipping this year, they could crush the confidence of the Anaheim forwards if they have a strong showing early.

Nashville Cons: The Predators rely on many players to score. Their top scorer, Filip Forsberg only netted 64 points this season, and after that, two of the next three highest scorers were defensemen. If Forsberg gets shutdown, the team may not be able to make up for that loss, especially with the Ducks’ improved defense.

Prediction: Ducks in five

Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The Dallas Stars | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Head to head 2016: Dallas took the season series 4-1, winning three of those games in overtime. The Stars outscored the Wild 20-11 and had a power play that scored at a whopping 28.6% against the Wild.

Pressure: On paper, the Wild look like they shouldn’t be in this series at all. They finished the season 22 points behind the Stars, and limped into the post-season with five straight losses.  The good thing is that none of that matters in the playoffs — well, at least not on the scoresheet. Inside the heads of the Wild players, it’s a different story.

Dallas pros: The Stars are the highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 3.23 goals per game. A lot of that scoring comes from Jamie Benn, but the team’s attack is balanced with Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, John Klingberg, and Patrick Sharp all putting up more than 50 points this season. In addition, the team’s goaltending is doing well this year, with Kari Lehtonen showing everyone that he belongs as a starting goaltender.

Dallas cons: The team is without Tyler Seguin due to injury, but even if he misses every game of this series, the Stars are deep enough that they should be able to get past the Wild. The only other thing that could cause the team to dip is if Lehtonen struggles in net.

Minnesota pros: Goaltending. At this point that’s about the only thing the Wild has to be optimistic about. If Devan Dubnyk can play out of his mind, the team has a chance. If he is anything less than MVP-caliber, the Wild are in trouble.

Minnesota cons: You never want to go into the playoffs on a losing streak, but that’s what the Wild faces, and that will weigh heavy on the minds of the players. If they fall behind early, it will be a rough go for them to dig out of that hole.

Prediction: If there is any series where a sweep could be predicted, it’s this one, but let’s be generous and say the Wild win at least one game at home. Dallas in five.

Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
The Los Angeles Kings | Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Head to head 2016: The Sharks took the series 3-2, outscoring the Kings 18-13.  Neither team was very good on the penalty kill during the series; the Sharks rang up five power-play goals on 23 shots and the Kings scored four power-play goals on 20 shots.

Pressure: These two teams have developed a nice rivalry over the years, and it’s always fun to watch them face off in the playoffs.  The pressure is on the Sharks because of the 2014 playoffs. Don’t remember that? Well, that’s the year the Sharks took a 3-0 series lead over the Kings and ended up losing the next four games, ending their season. The Kings won the Stanley Cup that year. There’s also some pressure on the Kings. They missed the playoffs last year, and they’ll want to remove that memory from fans’ minds.

Los Angeles pros: The Kings’ forward corps is deep this year, and a little bit nastier with the signing of Milan Lucic. In addition, the midseason pickup of forward Vincent Lecavalier and defenseman Luke Schenn gives the Kings some experience and depth heading into the playoffs. There’s also goaltender Jonathan Quick, who — with the 2012 Conn Smythe on his mantle — knows what it takes to win in the playoffs.

Los Angeles cons: This is a hard one, but if you had to pick one thing it would be Quick’s play at home against the Sharks. In his two starts, he went 0-2 and put up 4.52 goals against average. With the Kings starting the playoffs at home, Quick will need to be better than that.

San Jose pros: The Sharks have been good on the road this season with a record of 28-10-3 — and they will start this series on the road. The other pro is that their goaltender, Jhonas Enroth, is the former backup to Quick, which may help them with some inside information.

San Jose cons: Top defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been on the shelf since March 17, but it looks like he will return for this series. If Vlasic is less than 100%, things could go poorly for the Sharks. The other question is in net; Enroth has just 18 minutes of playoff experience to his name and that came in 2011 with the Buffalo Sabres.

Prediction: Let’s hope everything goes well for both teams in this one and that we get seven games, with the Kings moving on to the next round.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings

The Tampa Bay Lightning | Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Head to head 2016: The Lightning and the Red Wings split their season series 2-2. However, the Lightning did outscore the Red Wings during those games 11-8. Both teams also found success on the power play, with Tampa Bay scoring four goals on 14 power plays and the Red Wings scoring twice in nine power plays.

Pressure: The Red Wings have made the playoffs in 25 straight seasons, but they have not won the Stanley Cup since 2008. Making the playoffs is great for a team’s bottom line, but fans want to see their team winning Cups. Will this be the year the Wings not only make the playoffs, but lift the Cup?

Tampa Bay pros: The Lightning finished fifth in the NHL in goals against average at 2.38, and that’s important heading into this series. Their stingy defense and top-notch goaltending will be how they win this series.

Tampa Bay cons: Injuries, injuries, and more injuries. The Lightning are missing captain Steven Stamkos due to blood clots, as well as defenseman Anton Stralman for the first round. Victor Hedman, Ryan Callahan, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson are all questionable at this point.

Detroit pros: The best thing that could happen to the Red Wings is that the Lightning are limping into the playoffs. It’s important for the Red Wings to jump on their wounded opponent as quickly as possible. Another thing the Red Wings have going for them is emotion. Pavel Datsyuk said this will be his final season in Detroit, so we can expect the team to try and win a Cup for him in his last season.

Detroit cons: The Red Wings are the lowest-scoring NHL team to make the playoffs, which would be almost acceptable if they scored more than they were scored upon, but they didn’t.  The Red Wings goaltending needs to pick up the slack.

Prediction: Despite the injuries, Tampa Bay takes this one in six.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The New York Rangers | Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Head to head 2016: The Penguins took the series three 3-1 and outscored the Rangers 12-9 in those four games.

Pressure: This is the third straight year that these two teams have met in the playoffs, and the Rangers have won each of the two previous meetings. The pressure is on the Rangers to keep that streak alive and for the Penguins to end New York’s run.

Pittsburgh pros: You want your team to peak at the right time, and the Penguins are doing just that. They won 14 of their last 16 games heading into the playoffs. You couldn’t ask for a better performance from a team. Pittsburgh has averaged 3.56 goals per game at home and since they have home ice advantage, well, that’s huge.

Pittsburgh cons: Right now, no one knows if starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury will be in net for the Penguins to start this series due to a concussion. If he’s not, the Penguins will rely on Matt Murray, who has played well, but has never played in the NHL playoffs. Even if Fleury does come back, the goaltending question remains, as he has experienced ups and downs in the playoffs.

New York pros: While the Penguins’ goaltending is questionable, the Rangers’ goaltending is not. Henrik Lundqvist is one of those netminders you want behind your team when the game is on the line. He’s had some issues this season, but when the playoffs roll around he’s money.

New York cons: The Rangers will likely be without captain Ryan McDonagh for at least the start of the Pittsburgh series due to a hand injury. The team does not have anyone who can fill McDonagh’s role on the blue line and he will be missed.

Prediction: In the playoffs, it’s all about goaltending, and New York has the better player between the pipes. New York Rangers win this one in seven.

Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images
The Florida Panthers | Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Head to head 2016: The Panthers took the season series 2-1, almost doubling up the Islanders in goals 10-6.

Pressure: These two teams are going to be incredibly hungry to pass the first round. The Islanders have made the playoffs twice in the last 15 years, while the Panthers have made the postseason three times in nine years. With a playoff spot being such a rarity, no one wants to go home after just one series.

Florida pros: Florida is a well-balanced team with a good mix of younger and veteran players.  It’s those veterans, including Jaromir Jagr, Shawn Thornton and Roberto Luongo, who will help the youngsters navigate the tricky waters of the playoffs. Having players who have been there and done it is an important part of playoff hockey.

Florida cons: Florida has not been the best team in the third period of games, and they’ve also struggled in overtime. These are two stats that should make the team nervous.

New York pros: The team is physical, and that will count for something against the Panthers, a team of young players — who may not be ready for the grind of the playoffs — and older players — whose bodies may not be able to hold up to that grind. If they can be as physical as they were during the season, they should create some chances.

New York cons: John Tavares is not having a great year. Sure, he led the team in scoring, but he scored 16 points less than he did last year. If Tavares is not red hot, the Islanders may struggle.

Prediction: Florida is probably just a little too deep for New York, so Panthers in seven.

Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
The Washington Capitals | Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Head to head 2016: The Capitals and Flyers split their 2016 series 2-2, but the Capitals outscored the Flyers 12-9. In addition, the Capitals’ power play fired at a rate of 33.3%.

Pressure: The good news is that the Capitals finished first overall in the NHL with 120 points. The bad news is that the team is haunted by past collapses in the playoffs. They need to shake that tag in a big way this season. For the Flyers, the playoffs begin on a down note, as the team’s founder, Ed Snider, recently passed away. Snider was beloved by his team and the city they represent, and winning a Stanley Cup in his memory would be a fitting tribute.

Washington pros: They had the best record in the league, and they accomplished it by playing the most complete team hockey they have played in quite a while. No longer is this team defined as Alexander Ovechkin and some other players. The Capitals are a deep, scary team, with a young stud in net in Braden Holtby.

Washington cons: Nothing really, they’re rolling heading into this series, but there’s always the chance that this is the series the Capitals collapse.

Philadelphia pros: The Flyers are hot heading into this series. They had to play well for the last month of the season just to make the playoffs, so they are ready to play tough.

Philadelphia cons: They just don’t have the depth of the Capitals, and that will hurt them here.

Prediction: We want to pick the Flyers as a feel good pick, but it’s hard to do. With that said, the Flyers will make a series out of it, but they will ultimately lose to the Capitals in six games.

Statistics courtesy of Hockey-Reference, ESPN.com, and NHL.com.