As far as my own predictions, let’s get right into them. We’ve got potential for several upsets…and the wild, wild Western Conference is pretty much a crapshoot from this writer’s perspective!
1. Washington Capitals (54-15-13, 121 points) vs. 8. Montreal Canadiens (39-33-10, 88 points)
I would love, love, love to pick Montreal as a first round winner, and I’d have stuck my neck out and picked them over either New Jersey or Buffalo. Throw out all of the 5 on 5 deficiency mumbo jumbo you’ve heard, because this team plays okay offense but fantastic defense 5 on 5 with their lineup healthy. And they are healthy, for one of the few time this season. Just D Andrei Markov (last season’s points leader) and G Jaroslav Halak make a huge difference. The Habs are 20-8-5 with them in the lineup. Not quite the blistering winning percentage Washington’s kept up all season long, but not a far cry from it either. The Caps are very, very good and would have been basically invincible had they picked up Tomas Vokoun or Tim Thomas at the trading deadline. They’re vulnerable, but a favorite in every series they’ll be in.
Prediction: Montreal makes them sweat.
Capitals in 7 games.
2. New Jersey Devils (48-27-7, 103 points) vs. 7. Philadelphia Flyers (41-35-6, 88 points)
You can check out my multiple articles and references to the Flyers, both at Puck Prospectus and ESPN Insider: it’s the Philly offense, not Brian Boucher, that’s the main issue. These Flyers have proven that they can score like the Caps (nearly 4 GF/game) for extended stretches this season. New Jersey can’t be happy to meet a team that’s beaten them five out of six times this season – In fact, Philadelphia beat them 5-1 just a couple of weeks ago, and that was during a slump. This will be a war, that will wear down the winner for their next opponent – Great news for Buffalo if New Jersey survives.
Prediction: The schizophrenic Flyers find motivation against their rivals from up the NJ Turnpike.
Flyers in 7 games.
3. Buffalo Sabres (45-27-10, 100 points) vs. 6. Boston Bruins (39-30-13, 91 points)
The return of Tim Connolly, the Sabres’ best forward, is a huge key to this series. Without a healthy Connolly, the series would become close to a tossup.
**I”ll have a full preview of the Buffalo-Boston series at www.puckprospectus.com on Thursday – Check out PP today for previews of the series that are starting tonight**
Prediction: Rask may match Miller, but the no-name Sabres outclass the Bruins up and down their lineup.
Sabres in 5 games.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (47-28-7, 101 points) vs. 5. Ottawa Senators (44-32-6, 94 points)
Pittsburgh shouldn’t have much trouble with Ottawa, who’s got unproven Brian Elliott in net and Alex Kovalev out with a torn ACL, among other injuries. These aren’t last year’s Pens, though. Pittsburgh was red hot going into the playoffs last season, whereas this season, they’ve held on after a scorching start. Other than Sidney Crosby improving his all-around game, pretty much everything else on the Penguins has been down this season. So don’t mistake an easy win this round with a deep postseason run for Pittsburgh; I don’t see it happening this time around.
Prediction: No contest.
Penguins in 5 games.
1. San Jose Sharks (51-20-11, 113 points) vs. 8. Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9, 95 points)
Can anyone feel confident about Evgeni Nakokov, given last postseason’s poor performance against 8th seeded Anaheim? His non-competitive effort against Canada in the Olympics? How about in Todd McLellan’s coaching, given no ability to right his team during last year’s first round debacle? Colorado’s recent slump corresponded with Brandon Yip’s absence. Craig Anderson–a career backup–must be getting worn down by having faced the most SOGA in the NHL this season…but his performance has improved of late, after going through a rough stretch.
Prediction: Believe it or not…
Avalanche in 7 games.
2. Chicago Blackhawks (52-22-8, 112 points) vs. 7. Nashville Predators (47-29-6, 100 points)
Chicago was Puck Prospectus’ preseason number one pick for VUKOTA and they stand a good chance of emerging out of a super-competitive Western Conference. That said, don’t discount Nashville, who’s played exceptionally well since the Olympic break – They were a bubble playoff team a few weeks ago, but turned it on to the point where they never had to sweat it as far as making it into the dance.
Prediction: The Predators are competitive, but the Blackhawks are in control of the series throughout.
Blackhawks in 6 games.
3. Vancouver Canucks (49-28-5, 103 points) vs. 6. Los Angeles Kings (46-27-9, 101 points)
Roberto Luongo finally got some credit, taking over from Martin Brodeur to bring home the gold medal to Canada in 2010. Underappreciated, he’s been a very good playoff performer overall. This postseason, it won’t be all on Luongo’s shoulders, as the improvements of Henrik Sedin and Alex Burrows have given Vanouver a formidable offense. The Kings are probably a year early; they’d probably stand a better chance with Jonathan Bernier in net than the mediocre and overworked 24 year old Jonathan Quick – but Bernier’s not even on the roster.
Prediction: What could be a close series won’t be so close, due to Quick’s deficiencies (and Ersberg is a below average backup).
Canucks in 5 games.
4. Phoenix Coyotes (50-25-7, 107 points) vs. 5. Detroit Red Wings (44-24-14, 102 points)
All Phoenix has to show for a great run over the past month–they were within points of the top seed just a few weeks ago–is a first round date with the red hot Red Wings – thanks to a playoff system that gives Division winning Vancouver the 3 seed. Folks, this is a war. Detroit has the pedigree, they have Nicklas Lidstrom, they have Pavel Datsyuk, they have fine young goaltender Jimmy Howard, they’ve got an excellent coach in Mike Babcock. But Phoenix counters with Ilya Bryzgalov (who I predicted as the top goaltender for the playoffs in ESPN Insider), a great all around team, and likely Jack Adams winner Dave Tippett.
Prediction: Detroit better finish Phoenix in six, because Bryzgalov definitely can steal a game on his own. That said…
Coyotes in 7 games.