NHL – First Round Playoff Predictions

13 Apr

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin tonight and just like every other season, there are some really interesting first round matchups. I’ll preview the Buffalo Sabres / Philadelphia Flyers series on Thursday.  Here are my predictions on how the remaining  first round series will turn out:

Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay – this is a 4 vs. 5 matchup as far as seedings go, which should make it a close series. The Lightning are an interesting team. They have a lot of potential scoring ability with players like Vincent LeCavalier, Martin St. Louis, Simon Gagne and young Steven Stamkos, and may benefit from a highly motivated Ryan Malone, a former Penguin. The Pens, on the other hand, are minus Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby ( at least to start the series), who are out with injuries. This pair is not only Pittsburgh’s two best players but two of the best in the NHL. That appears to leave the Penguins at a huge disadvantage, but I’m going to pick them to win the series for 2 reasons – 1) the NHL playoffs are more of a grind-it-out marathon where great offensive players are often negated with tight checking, and the loss of their 2 stars has forced Pittsburgh to play that style to survive, and 2) Marc-Andre Fleury gives the Penguins a big advantage in goal over Tampa’s Dwayne Roloson.

Boston vs. Montreal – there have been some epic, historic series played between these old rivals, and this one should be close. A lot of people are looking at the Bruins as a solid contender to win the Cup, and I feel that they’ll win this series, although it may go the full seven games. The Bruins had mixed results in last year’s playoffs – upsetting higher-seeded Buffalo in the first round, then blowing a 3-0 lead in games to the Flyers and losing in seven games in the second round. The spectre of not being able to close out Philly last year will be hanging over Boston’s collective heads if they jump out to a lead in the series, and Montreal is just the type of team to extend the series to the max. Nothing would please Canadiens’ fans more than knocking off the Bruins, but I don’t see it happening. Boston was a solid team last year, then added Ethan Horton, top draft pick Tyler Seguin, and late trade additions Thomas Kaberle and Chris Kelly. Montreal, on the other hand, traded away the player who was key in them advancing to the conference finals last year – goaltender Jaroslav Halak.

Washington vs. New York Rangers – the Capitals and their star, Alex Ovechkin, are Exhibit A in showing that having flashy players with great offensive ability doesn’t win you Stanley Cups. The Caps were dumped from the playoffs last year by a less-talented Montreal team, even though they had a 3-1 lead in games at one point. The Rangers are a lot like last year’s Canadiens, and have a goalie in Henrik Lundqvist who could get hot and stone the Caps. Washington has got to be highly motivated to erase that playoff upset from last season, and they are a better team than the Rangers, so I’m going to pick them to win the series. They’ve added grinders like Marco Sturm and Jason Arnott to a talented roster, so I see them outlasting the Blueshirts in a long series.

Vancouver vs. Chicago – this may be the most intriguing matchup of all in the first round – the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks, with the best regular season record in the NHL and a roster loaded with talent, against the defending Stanley Cup champions who squeaked into the playoffs this year only because the Dallas Stars couldn’t win their final game. On the surface, this looks like one of those series where the seasoned, playoff-tested defending champs knock out the higher seeded Canucks, who have a history of playoff failure. I see the Canucks winning the series, however. Chicago is nowhere near the team it was when it won the Cup last year. They basically had a fire sale of players after winning the Cup, dumping salaries and losing players who were major contributors last year, including playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien and goalie Antti Niemi. Vancouver has a roster loaded with talent and grit, led by the Sedin twins – Daniel and Henrik, and will win this series, giving the team confidence to make a long run in this year’s tournament.

San Jose vs. Los Angeles – like Vancouver, San Jose has a history of fielding awesome regular season teams that flop in the playoffs. The Kings have one of the NHL’s best young defense corps, led by Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, and some good forwards like Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Ryan Smyth. The difference in the 2 teams is between the pipes. The Sharks have better goaltending and more experience, so I see them winning them this all-California series. By the way, the NHL has to be thrilled that California has 3 teams competing for the Cup, including both Los Angeles-based clubs, the Kings and Anaheim Ducks. It can only help to grow the game.

Detroit vs. Phoenix – these 2 teams played a grueling opening round series last year, won by Detroit in seven games. The Wings, with a proud, winning tradition, needed every ounce of effort they had to eliminate the Coyotes last year, then were beaten by eventual champion Chicago. The feeling here is that Detroit, although a strong club, is starting to age somewhat and is vulnerable to being eliminated this year by Phoenix. The Red Wings have problems in goal, while the Coyotes have Ilya Bryzgalov, capable of getting hot and stealing the series on his own. Phoenix has only one 20-goal scorer – captain Shane Doan – but gets balanced scoring from a roster of unknown grinders, just the type of team that thrives in the NHL playoff crucible. I’ll pick the Coyotes to win this series.

Anaheim vs. Nashville – this is not exactly a traditional hockey matchup like Montreal vs. Toronto, but it is a confrontation between two tough, disciplined hockey teams that should be very entertaining. Nashville plays a sound defensive system that should serve them well in the close-checking playoffs, and one player to watch as a potential game-changer for the Predators is newly-acquired forward Mike Fisher ( AKA Carrie Underwood’s husband). Fisher’s style of play is conducive to NHL playoff hockey, and I see him being a force for the Preds. Anaheim won the Cup in 2007 and has a lot of playoff-tested veterans – like Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, Bobby Ryan and captain Ryan Getzlaff. For that reason, I have the Ducks winning the series, continuing Nashville’s playoff drought. They are winless in five previous Stanley Cup playoff series.

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