Here are my picks for the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
(1) New York Rangers
vs. (8) Ottawa Senators
As it turns out, this is not the matchup we thought we would be getting during the final weeks of the season. For a long time it looked like New York would be facing Washington or Buffalo, but surprisingly it will be Ottawa. The Senators can score and they've got a pretty good power play and some solid young players, but I just think the Rangers are too gritty, too strong and too good defensively. It could be a tougher series than people expect, but I have to think New York will be able to shut down Jason Spezza
, Erik Karlsson
and Daniel Alfredsson
with the smothering defense it has.
In many cases the equalizing factor in these series is goaltending, but Henrik Lundqvist
is so good that Craig Anderson
will have a challenge matching up. Anderson would have to play like Jaroslav Halak
did with Montreal in 2010, and in the end, I think that's the only way Ottawa pulls it out.
Pick: Rangers in five.
(2) Boston Bruins
vs. (7) Washington Capitals
Washington, if you look at their history in the playoffs, they haven't had much success, so it's not like they're a confident team in the postseason, but they are dangerous this time around. They have nothing to lose and they'll be loose, which is different from coming in as favorites, which they haven't handled well.
All that said, I expect Boston to just have too much experience and grit. I think Zdeno Chara
and company will be able to shut down Ovechkin and Backstrom, particularly because Chara proved last year when he went against the opposition's top guys every night that he can negate lines like Washington's. As well, Backstrom may not be 100% healthy, and the Bruins will make his life miserable. Plus, the Capitals will probably have to go with Braden Holtby
in net. He's played very well at times, but he's also looked very young at times, and it's pretty tough to expect a kid to walk in there and beat the mighty Boston Bruins
Pick: Bruins in six.
(3) Florida Panthers
vs. (6) New Jersey Devils
I know how the teams are seeded, but this, to me, isn't a real 3-versus-6 matchup. I think the Panthers are good -- they found a way to win their last game and get that third spot -- but I like the Devils. Jersey is a deep team, and don't forget that the Devils are much better offensively. They have three 30-goal scorers this season, which is a pretty impressive arsenal. They're very good defensively like always, and Martin Brodeur
has played well. He isn't the Marty Brodeur of 10 years ago, but he's played well in a rebound year, and I just think the Devils are very solid all around, and I like the way they're playing.
Also, don't forget, the Devils had eight more points than Florida in a tougher division. That's a pretty good indicator. Florida, too, I think will be one of those teams that is just happy to finally be back in the playoffs after so many years. Making the playoffs was their goal and they did it. They may be one of those teams that's just happy to be there, and I don't think the stay will be long.
Pick: Devils in six.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins
vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers
This is the one we've been waiting for. I think this is just going to be a great series, and it may be the best one of the entire 2012 postseason. These two teams both hate each other, they're both from Pennsylvania, they both have a bunch of star power and they've both been to the Stanley Cup Final recently.
I think this is a very evenly-matched series. The Flyers don't look quite as good as the Penguins on paper, but the Flyers know how to play Pittsburgh. They know how to get under their skin, they know how to goad them into penalties and they'll goad them into getting too emotional and losing their game plan. A lot of the reasons the Flyers win are intangibles that you don't see on paper. That said, the Penguins have so much scoring and a very deep defense. I see a very hard-fought, emotional, dirty, mean series, but I see Pittsburgh as the team that survives.
Pick: Penguins in seven.
(1) Vancouver Canucks
vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings
We have a major upset every year in the playoffs so you can't pick chalk all day long. I have a feeling this might be it. Vancouver is a great team again after winning another Presidents' Trophy, but I can see them walking into this series thinking it's going to win and underestimating the Kings. Remember, we don't know what's happening with Daniel Sedin
, and that's a huge problem for the Canucks. I actually think L.A.'s goaltending is better than Vancouver's and don't forget, Chicago almost beat Vancouver in the first round last year.
I think L.A. is a much better team now than they were a month ago, I think they're playing better offensively than they have all season and I think Jonathan Quick
is good enough to stand on his head and steal a series if he has to. I also think the Kings will remember how the Bruins beat the Canucks a year ago and they'll get in Vancouver's face and play physically, which we've seen them do before. Every year we see a big upset, and something tells me the ingredients are there to make this the one.
Pick: Kings in seven.
(2) St. Louis Blues
vs. (7) San Jose Sharks
Before this season started we might have seen this matchup going the other way, but not now. I really think St. Louis is playing so well that at the moment they just don't have a weakness. The defense is big, young and mobile. Their goaltending tandem is great, and they're just playing great hockey. The Blues never stumbled down the stretch and I just think they've been a great team ever since Ken Hitchcock took over. He brought in accountability and a defensive mindset that really fits the players on the roster, and he also got to take over a team with talent. This is a team that has gotten to draft high picks for several years.
Ken was the right man in the right place at the right time for this team. I do think San Jose will play them well. With the experience and talent the Sharks have they can't be counted out lightly, but I just think St. Louis is too deep and they're playing too well right now.
Pick: Blues in six.
(3) Phoenix Coyotes
vs. (7) Chicago Blackhawks
I think Phoenix has had a great season. Mike Smith
is probably the comeback play of the year, the team is playing great hockey right now going into the playoffs, they finished the season strong and they're just a good team all around. But all that said, I just like Chicago. I like the way the Blackhawks play, I like their speed, and everyone seems to think they'll finally have Jonathan Toews
and Dave Bolland
back so they'll have the full team healthy for the first time in a long time.
The Blackhawks are just a team that knows how to win. They won a Cup a few years ago with this core group, they've added some guys to give them that grit factor and I also like the addition of Johnny Oduya
on the blue line. Phoenix has really impressed, no matter what happens, coach Dave Tippett
always has the Coyotes competing. But I just like the Blackhawks.
Pick: Blackhawks in seven.
(4) Nashville Predators
vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
I think this is going to be awesome. This is going to be a very tough series for both of these teams, but a few things stand out. I'm not a big believer in home ice in the playoffs, but Detroit is definitely a different team this season on the road than at home. Nashville is good everywhere. I think the Predators' defense matches up well with the Red Wings' forwards, they're big and tough, I think Alexander Radulov
has changed their offense and I think Pekka Rinne
is as good a goaltender as there is in hockey.
Nashville's size will definitely be a factor. If you look at that defense with Shea Weber
, Ryan Suter
and Hal Gill
, that's a big defense and then add in that they've got Paul Gaustad
now and some other big forwards that will grind you. Also, the Predators have played Detroit a lot so they know how to play the Wings. I think Jimmy Howard
will be good, but I don't think he'll be as good as Rinne. This will be a great series, but it could also be Nashville's years. They're a team to be reckoned with and if a few things go their way, they could be the team to come out of the West.
Pick: Predators in seven.