The NHL playoffs are finally set in both conferences. Late pushes from the Canes and Stars fell short in their final games as they both failed to win when controlling their own fate. The defending champs are in as the 8th seed in the West and will face the Canucks (again). The Vancouer-Chicago are one of many intriguing matchups in round one. Boston-Montreal and Washington-New York Rangers also have potential for being amazing series. So let's jump into some predictions. I'm going to predict all four rounds and a Conn Smythe winner when the time comes. For now, I'll just be doing the first round. I'll predict the second round after the first is finished and so on. Let it be known that I own a crystal ball and have ESP, so all credit for accuracy should definitely not go to my hockey knowledge or series-picking prowess. Anyway, here we go.
EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
1. Washington Capitals VS. 8. New York Rangers
The Capitals may be more of a complete team this season than they've ever been since the lockout. The offensive numbers are down across the board for superstar Alex Ovechkin, as well as Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green. But the numbers for team defense have significantly improved from last season. The Caps are 4th in the league in goals against at 2.33 GA/G this season, a noteworthy improvement over finishing in the middle of the pack last season at 2.77 GA/G. And after finishing 25th in the league in PK last season at 78.8%, they are now 2nd at 85.6% this year. On top of that, goaltending hasn't really been an issue for them this time around. All three of the Caps' goalies have shown the ability to hold them in games and have posted very solid numbers this year. The Rangers, on the other hand, are essentially the same team they've always been. Great goaltending, balanced scoring, top 10 defense (top 5 this year). Losing Callahan right before the start of the postseason hurts, but I still think they have the tools to possibly cause some problems for the Caps. Lundqvist has had a Vezina-worthy season and I don't expect him to show any signs of slowing down just because the second season starts on Wednesday. He could easily steal a game or two by himself in this series. The Rangers have also taken 3 of 4 from the Caps this season, including two blowouts (6-0 and 7-0).
This series will be closer than many people think given how these teams match up against each other. But I think the Caps will prevail in the end.
Capitals win 4-2
2. Philadelphia Flyers VS. 7. Buffalo Sabres
The Flyers were coasting through the first half plus of the season, posting a 33-12-5 record prior to the All-Star break. Since then, they've gone just 14-11-7. Many people like to point to just one thing that caused the second half slide, some blaming goaltending, some the loss of Pronger, some the inabiltiy to put the puck in the net. But, really, there was no one thing that caused the Flyers to barely hold onto the 2nd seed over the Penguins. Some nights it was goaltending struggles, some nights they lost 1-0. Some nights it was the powerplay going 0-7, some nights it was the PK allowing 3 or 4 to hit the twine. Consistency in all facets of the game just wasn't there for the Flyers in the second half. That said, they may have gotten the best draw they could hope for in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres are not the top 5 defensive squad they were last year, and much of that can be attributed to the dropoff Ryan Miller had from his Vezina Trophy winning season last year. I don't see much from this Sabres team. They don't hit and they aren't as sound defensively as they've been in previous years. And I haven't even mentioned that Miller may not even be completely healthy. He may have played the last couple games, but who knows if he's still aching from his "upper body" injury or not.
I don't think this series will be very close even with the Flyers late season struggles and the even record the teams have against one another. The Fly Guys return to the second round in consecutive years.
Flyers win 4-1
3. Boston Bruins VS. 6. Montreal Canadiens
Here it is. This is by far my most anticipated matchup of any in the first round. Every game this year was an ugly, grinding affair with huge (and oft-referred to illegal) hits from both sides. Both teams have elite goaltending and a solid defensive core. On top of that, they're both Original Six franchises. It doesn't get much better than that. This series could easily go the distance and I, for one, am hoping that it does. The Bruins are a very similar team to the ones they've brought into the postseason the last few years, except this season they can actually score. They are a top 5 offensive team after being dead last in the league last season. 2nd in the league in defense and 5th in the league in offense really should give them a clear edge in this one, but I'm not sure it matters given the team they're playing. The Habs took 4 of 6 from the B's this season, including all three at the Bell Centre. Carey Price is having a stellar season after playing behind Halak in the playoffs last year. He could easily be this years Halak with the way he's playing.
This series will go the distance. It's just gonna happen. It'll be a very entertaining, tight series and it could easily go either way. I have the Habs going through in game 7 in Bean Town.
Canadiens win 4-3
4. Pittsburgh Penguins VS. 5. Tampa Bay Lightning
To most, this series will be largely contingent upon whether or not Crosby plays. Sid the Kid has missed half the season and has hardly practiced since his concussion. I'm going to go ahead and say that he'll play in this series, even if it's not game 1. I'm not sure it matters, though. The Pens have played inspired hockey even without their two superstars (Crosby and Malkin). Fleury has been outstanding and is another guy who could be thrown into the Vezina mix this year. The rest of the guys, namely Staal and Kunitz, really stepped up in the second half in the absence of Sid and Geno. James Neal and Alexei Kovalev have pretty much been duds for Pittsburgh since they came over prior to the trade deadline, but still have the ability to shine in the playoffs. Tampa Bay got off to a fast start this year...or should I say, Stamkos got off to a fast start this year. Once Stamkos fell back to earth, the Lightning fell behind the Capitals for first in the Southeast. The Lightning were a really good offensive team this year with St. Louis and Stamkos leading the way, but defensively they are awful. They've allowed 6+ goals in a game 10 times this season. I'm not sure if they have what it takes to make noise in the playoffs, especially against a playoff-savvy team in the Penguins.
The Pens have superior defense, goaltending, coaching, and are two years removed from a championship. I have them taking this series at the end of the day, with or without the best player in the world.
Penguins win 4-2
WESTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
1. Vancouver Canucks VS. 8. Chicago Blackhawks
Vancouver is first in offense, first in defense, first in PP%, third in PK%, and have 117 points after running away with the division, the conference, and the President's Trophy. The Sedin Twins have been on fire all season and Kesler and Luongo are having career years. This team is absolutely loaded. But, they drew the defending champs in round one; a team that beat them in the Conference Semis the last two years. A lot of people, including some of Blackhawk Nation, are downplaying the significance of the last two playoff seasons against Vancouver, explaining that both teams are significantly different this year. I'm not too sold on that idea. I think if Chicago steals one of the first two games in Vancouver there will be a lot of chatter about the Hawks having the Canucks' number, especially from those in Western Canada. Obviously Chicago lost many of the players who brought Chicago its first Stanley Cup in 49 years, but they are still a formidable team capable of giving anybody trouble (including the best team in the league). Toews has carried the Hawks this year with 76 points, Duncan Keith is still a top 10 defenseman, and Hossa, Kane, and Sharp can all put the puck in the net when their team needs a goal. Not to mention Corey Crawford is one of many rookies who could be considered for the Calder this year. I wouldn't necessarily count this team out in this series.
This looks like a new year for the Canucks. They will be heavy favorites going in despite the Hawks' recent success against them. I see the third time being the charm for Vancouver.
Canucks win 4-2
2. San Jose Sharks VS. 7. Los Angeles Kings
San Jose has been great in the second half, posting a 23-6-3 record since the All-Star Break. I didn't see them winning the division before the season began, but I was proven wrong by a team with more character than I gave them credit for. The Sharks sport 7 players with 50 points or more and Niemi has been a more than capable replacement for Nabokov. I can see this team going far this year. The Kings were my original pick to take the competetive Pacific Division this year, but a lackluster stretch from the end of December to the middle of January quickly defused those aspirations. On top of that, Justin Williams is day-to-day as of right now and Anze Kopitar is out until fall. They possibly could have caused some trouble for a team this year, but it would most likely take a monumental effort from Jonathan Quick for them to take this series. He's had an outstanding season, but he'll have to be Patrick Roy circa '93 for them to have a chance in my opinion. I like Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty, but after that the Kings' defense drops off a bit.
I think the Sharks have a clear edge in this series even though they split the season series this year. This may be a cake-walk given the Kings injuries and the Sharks second half surge.
Sharks win 4-0
3. Detroit Red Wings VS. 6. Phoenix Coyotes
The Red Wings have been the most bi-polar team this season by far. After starting 17-4-3, they've essentially been a .500 club (30-21-7 since)...okay slightly over .500. But, the point remains. The Wings would win 3, lose 4, win 5, lose 3, and so on. It went on that way since the beginning of December. They never really got anything going all year in terms of consistency. This is mainly due to the atrocious defense they played all year long. Last season the Wings were 7th in team defense, but this year they're 23rd at 2.89 GA/G. The Wings also battled injuries all year much like they did last season. Datsyuk has missed 27 games, Cleary 15, Rafalski 20, Stuart 16, Modano 43, Filpulla 12, Holmstrom 10, Franzen 7, and Kronwall and Zetterberg are day-to-day right now. This team is beat up along with being an inconsistent squad, and they're playing the same team they beat in seven games last year. Phoenix surprised a few people, including me, by duplicating the regular season success they enjoyed last season. They are almost exactly the same team as they were last year. Score by committee, not a superstar in the bunch (save for maybe Yandle), great goaltending. If Bryzgalov has a monster series, it could be a long series for the Wings. Detroit has been stymied by good goaltending a few times this season, most notably Jonathan Quick's 51 save shutout in December and Cam Ward's 42 save shutout last week. It's strange to see the 2nd best offense in the league get frustrated by a netminder like that twice in a season, but Bryzgalov is definitely capable of duplicating what Quick and Ward did in this series.
The rematch of last year's 4/5 first round matchup may produce a different winner this time, but I think the end result will be the same. Jimmy Howard is the Wild card in this series. He just has to play adequate and the Wings will win.
Red Wings win 4-3
4. Anaheim Ducks VS. 5. Nashville Predators
The Ducks may have the best line in hockey. Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, and Hart-favorte Corey Perry have been sensational this year. Selanne is hardly playing like a 40-year-old and Visnovsky is one of the best defenseman in hockey, leading all defenseman in points. Anaheim has a lot of pieces. Where I'm not sold is secondary scoring and defense. Depth is a problem for this team. There is a signifcant drop off from line 1 to line 2 and an even bigger drop from line 2 to line 3. Same goes for the defense. After Lydman and Visnovsky, there isn't a whole lot to be proud of on the back end. In goal, it seems every goalie the Ducks have has gotten injured. Even if healthy, I wouldn't hold my breath for any of those guys to steal a series. Nashville, much like Phoenix, did a lot with little for the second year in a row. Balanced scoring throughout the lineup has gotten them into the playoffs again - a place I didn't think they'd be this year. The Predators play one of the best defensive games in the league. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are one of the best defensive pairings in the game and Pekka Rinne posted some of the best numbers of any goalie this year. 3rd in GA/G and 5th on the PK - this team will be tough to score against even for the high powered line in Anaheim.
This series will be close. I believe the Predators finally get it done in the playoffs, though, with Rinna leading the way to their first round two trip in franchise history.
Predators win 4-2
Well, that's it for the first round. The Second round matchups would be:
1. Washington Capitals VS. 6. Montreal Canadiens
2. Philadelphia Flyers VS. 4. Pittsburgh Penguins
1. Vancouver Canucks VS. 5. Nashville Predators
2. San Jose Sharks VS. 3. Detroit Red Wings