WestChicago/Vancouver - Canucks in 6...
Don't these two teams play one another every spring? It certainly seems that way. Well, This will be the year that the Canucks finally get the better of the 'Hawks. The defending Stanley Cup champs needed an upset win by the Wild over Dallas to even qualify for dance and are not in any way as deep as last year's team! Roberto Lunongo, who has been criticized in past playoffs for not providing Vancouver with the kind of netminding needed in the post season, is well rested and should be the difference in the series.
L.A./San Jose- Sharks win in 4... How many times have we seen San Jose make an unexpected early exit from the playoffs. Not this year or at least not in this opening round series with L.A. The Kings are minus their go to guy in Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have too many offensive weapons led by big Joe Thornton who needs to show the Sharks faithful and team management that he can lead a team deep into the playoffs.
Detroit/Phoenix - Red Wings in 7... The way that the Red Wings finished the season, my first thought would be to pick Phoenix. But, with all the experience in the Detroit lineup and this might be the final time we see Nicklas Lidstrom wear the Red Wings jersey in the postseason, I will pick the Wings to win the series. Last Spring, the matchup with these two teams went the limit. With Ilya Bryzgalov in the Coyotes nets, I expect him again to steal a game or two in the series, so it will go the distance with the Wings advancing.
Nashville/Anaheim - Ducks in 7... This one is the most difficult for me to predict. I really like the way the Ducks finished the season, but with Barry Trotz behind the Predators bench and Pekka Rinne in their nets this is going to be a terrific series! Anaheim has the horses led by Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan, as good a line as their is in the NHL. But what about their goaltending? Jonas Hiller hasn't played much since the All-Star game and Ray Emery, despite an impressive return from serious surgery and a new beginning in Anaheim, is also not 100-percent. It's a toss up! So, I will say Anaheim wins game 7 in triple overtime!
New York Rangers/Washington - Rangers in 7... This one could prove to be an upset special! Washington should win with their offense alone. The likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin should be enough to give the Rangers defense fits! Except for the fact New York has Henrik Lundqvist in goal and believe me he CAN steal the series. This one goes 7 with the Rangers winning the series in the 7th game in double overtime costing Bruce Boudreau his job.
Buffalo/Philadelphia - Sabres in 5... The Flyers were dreadful down the stretch. They don't have reliable goaltending at all and with Chris Pronger still not practicing after surgery on his hand days before the start of the series how effective can he be, even if he plays? As for the Sabres, I really like their team having seen them at Nationwide this past Saturday. They are solid in goal with Ryan Miller, they have a mobile blueline led by young Tyler Myers and up front, although they lack size, they do have ample firepower led by Vanek, Pominville and Stafford. This one over in quick order.
Montreal/Boston - Bruins in 7... This one is a classic throw back to the NHL's old times. On paper Boston should win, but let's not forget Montreal's surprising run last year in the playoffs. The difference this year is Jaroslav Halak is not in the Canadiens nets, but an improved Carey Price is. That said, how can I not pick Boston to advance with Tim Thomas in goal, a blueline led by captain Zdeno Chara and forwards like Lucic, Krejci, Bergeron and Horton. This will be Horton's coming out party, his first ever playoff appearance and he will have an impact.
Tampa Bay/Pittsburgh - Penguins in 7... No Crosby. At least that's what the Penguins are saying and after not playing for the past three months why risk it? And no Malkin, but Pittsburgh is a well coached and talented team nonetheless. With Marc-Andre Fleury in goal he will out duel Dwayne Roloson and keep the likes of Stamkos and St. Louis in check. It's another long series.
Chicago/Vancouver - Canucks in 6... If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man. The defending champs against the Presidents' Trophy winners and it is going to be an interesting matchup. Vancouver led the season series 2-1-1. I think you look at the goaltending and Roberto Luongo vs. Corey Crawford as a key to the series. Chicago doesn't have the depth they've had in years past, losing players to trades and injury. In every category you have to give the advantage to Vancouver.
L.A./San Jose - Sharks win in 5... A lot of pressure for San Jose, time is running out on the current regime in the Sharks organization. They have challenged for the Cup for many years, but never able to even make the Final. Thornton, Heatley and Marleau did not have as good of a year this year, but they got a push from rookie Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. Antti Niemi has won nine of his last 11 and he is a huge plus for them right now. Goaltender Jonathan Quick is unproven in goal for the Kings, as he has to get it done for L.A. to move on. Huge loss in Anze Kopitar, he is their MVP and you have to look to Justin Williams, Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner to pick up their games, respectively.
Detroit/Phoenix - Red Wings in 6... The experience of the Red Wings stands out with the success they've had over the last decade (2 Stanley Cups-10 playoff appearances). The two teams played a game 7 last year and Detroit won it 6-1 (on the road), so they have that in the back of their minds that they can come up big on the road when necessary. Phoenix is well-coached, disciplined and with Ilya Bryzgalov, maybe the best goaltender in the Western Conference. Detroit has four guys with at least 20-plus goals and Phoenix only has Shane Doan, so Phoenix will need to get scoring from D-man Keith Yandle (potential Norris Trophy winner this year or down the road) and others. Detroit has the depth with players like Darren Helm, who provides a lot of speed.
Nashville/Anaheim - Predators in 7... Nashville has been in the playoffs five of the last six years, but has not gotten by the opening round. The Predators won the season series 3-1-0 and down the stretch played well, going 9-3-1. However, Anaheim has been hot too, going 7-3-0 in their last 10. Goaltender Pekka Rinne had his coming out season this year and head coach Barry Trotz is very high on his netminder. The strength of the Predators is the defense with Ryan Suter and Shea Weber and for Anaheim they have offense with Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, Teemu Selanne and Corey Perry. I don't know if Anaheim has the depth on lines 3 and 4.
New York Rangers/Washington - Capitals in 6... The NY Rangers won the season series 3-1, but Washington will be ready. Since 2007, under Bruce Boudreau every playoff series has gone to seven games for Washington, but that will not be the case in this one. This Capitals team is not the same as years past and are much better defensively (2nd on the PK in the NHL) and winners of 16 of 20. Washington comes in with their top four scorers scoring 54 fewer points than a season ago, but they will still have enough fire power to beat the Rangers. The NY Rangers backed into the playoffs due to the Carolina Hurricanes loss to Tampa Bay and the only player that can keep the series close is King Henrik (Lundqvist).
Buffalo/Philadelphia - Sabres in 6... The Flyers are not playing well, going 2-4-4 compared to Buffalo, who is 8-1-2 in their last 11 games. A huge part of Philly's downfall has been the loss of Chris Pronger. If Pronger returns you could see a major shift in this series. The Flyers have four players with 65-plus points, while Buffalo only has one such player. Despite huge advantage for Philly offensively, Buffalo has the most important player in Ryan Miller. The Sabres are the hottest team coming into the playoffs, goinig 29-11-6 since December.
Montreal/Boston - Bruins in 7... The Bruins will advance past the second round for the first time since 1992. This series will be played with a lot of energy and emotion. No two teams hate each other more in these first round matchups than these two clubs. Montreal has good goaltending but limited offensive production. Tim Thomas is coming off a career year save percentage and has great support from Tukka Rask if something goes wrong with Thomas. Boston has strong defense with Chara and Kaberle (best +/-) and four scorers over 50 pts.
Tampa Bay/Pittsburgh - Penguins in 7... Pittsburgh has played a terrific structured game for months now - a lot of WE not I for the Penguins. They will be led by strong goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and one of the best D-cores in the Steel City in years (best PK in the NHL). Tampa Bay is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. The Lightning are led by youngster Steven Stamkos and his 45 goals (2nd in the NHL), despite a much cooler second half he will get help from Martin St. Louis (99 pts. was second to D. Sedin). Dwayne Roloson at 41 has the ability to play big games, whether he has enough stamina to win a series, only time will tell.
Chicago/Vancouver - Cancuks in 7... These are two teams that know a little bit about each other in the playoffs over the last few years. You have to lean towards Vancouver because of their goaltending, but can Chicago get back in the head of Roberto Luongo as they have over the past two seasons. The Canucks have a lot of confidence they can beat the best teams in the West. The defensive system Vancouver plays and the way they are playing it right now, they look like the top team in the league. Chicago does have experience on their side after winning the Cup a year ago.
L.A./San Jose - Sharks in 6... You look at experience, Antti Niemi brings that over from Chicago after helping the Blackhawks win the Cup a year ago - he has to have a good series. San Jose is in desperation mode, when talking to Wilson the General Manager, things have to be better in the playoffs. Terry Murray has done an unbelievable job of tightening up the D-core of the Kings and that's why they are having success right now. Both teams play the same way, creating offense off of their rush and once inside the zone, they shoot the puck a lot.
Detroit/Phoenix - Red Wings in 7... The Coyotes were 2-0-2 against Detroit this season. The question mark for Detroit is what happens to Jimmy Howard in the net. Jimmy has to play his best hockey in this series. On the defensive side, look at Lidstrom and Rafalski and what they are able to do on the backend with their experience in the playoffs. Mike Babcock has been there before as a coach, coaching in the Olympics, winning a gold medal and has three 50-plus win seasons.
Nashville/Anaheim - Predators in 6... The Nashville Predators have one goal, to make it out of the first round for the first time every in their history. Former Predator Dan Ellis looks like he will be in goal for Anaheim with Emery and Hiller being out. Pekka Rinne was the best player for Nashville this year and you look at the fact that Rinne beat out Ellis for the job in Nashville. The Predators get scoring by committee up front and then use Suter and Weber on the backend to supplement that scoring. I think this will be a great series.
New York Rangers/Washington - Rangers in 6... I don't believe in numbers, I look at teams and I think the pressure is on Washington after their failures in past postseasons. I think Bruce Boudreau has done a great job making adjustments defensively. I think the Rangers with King Henry (Henrik Lundqvist) in net and their grinding style of play, I think they will get past the Capitals.
Buffalo/Philadelphia - Sabres in 7... The series should go back and forth a lot, but you have to look at Bobrovsky vs. Miller in net will be the storyline. Timely scoring and the energy created by the new ownership group, Terry Pagula has brought back the excitement. Philadelphia knows what it takes to get to the Final, but Buffalo will ride the wave of excitement past the Flyers.
Montreal/Boston - Bruins in 6... I think the two teams are close, but the physical nature of the Bruins over six or seven games will take effect on Montreal. Tim Thomas had an outstanding year as did Carey Price, but Thomas gives Boston a slight edge. The balance and the toughness of the Boston Bruins is there for the first round.
Tampa Bay/Pittsburgh - Lightning in 7... Roloson steals the series for Tampa Bay and remember he has some experience from his days in Edmonton. Now, when you get into a seven game series, the loss of Crosby and Malkin will come back to hurt Pittsburgh. I don't believe their depth is that great. While the defense is fine, I don't know that they can score enough goals to win this series.
Chicago/Vancouver - Canucks in 6... The Blackhawks came close to not making the playoffs at all, but still have a lot of firepower up front. Corey Crawford is the key to whether or not they advance past the first round. On the other side, Roberto Luongo has to get past the mental block he has when playing against Chicago. I think the best team during the regular season moves on.
L.A./San Jose- Sharks win in 5... No Anze Kopitar means trouble for the Kings. Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson will need to provide offensive punch, from the blueline. I think this is the year Joe Thornton steps it up in the playoffs. Let's see how far Antti Niemi can carry the Sharks this year. They hope it's as far as he carried the 'Hawks last year.
Detroit/Phoenix - Red Wings in 6... The Coyotes get a chance to reverse the fortunes of last year. They have to play almost perfect defense to contain the speedy Red Wings. Jimmy Howard has proven vulnerable at times this season, but if the offense puts up big numbers, that won’t matter. I think experience wins out in the end, just like last season.
Nashville/Anaheim - Predators in 7... Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan carry the Ducks, but don’t overlook Teemu Selanne. The best way to stop good scoring is by having a good goaltender. Pekka Rinne has been outstanding all season long and I expect that to remain the case. The Ducks goaltending is a bit of a question mark and they hope that doesn’t come into play. I think the Barry Trotz system prevails.
New York Rangers/Washington - Capitals in 6... The Capitals are playing a completely different style coming into these playoffs, much different than they have in the past with Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau has them playing playoff-style hockey. The Rangers backed into the playoffs with a Carolina loss. Goaltending is a question mark for Washington with three goalies possibly seeing time, but they should find one to get them past the first round.
Buffalo/Philadelphia - Flyers in 7... The Sabres looked like they would not be in the playoffs back in December, but have been red hot to make it into the top 8 in the east. The Flyers stumbled a little bit down the stretch to drop from 1 to 2 in the East. Ryan Miller has been there and done that in big games, while Sergei Bobrovsky is new to the NHL playoffs and unproven (10 GA in final three games of regular season). The Flyers need Chris Pronger in the lineup and have a clear edge if he is able to play Game 1.
Montreal/Boston - Canadiens in 7... The big story of this series is the animosity between the two clubs from the regular season, highlighted by the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty. The Canadiens do not want to play a lot of 5-on-5 hockey with Boston in this series, because when Montreal went on the PP they were 9-for-28 during the regular season series. Cary Price has been sensational this season for the Habs, but has not been as good as Tim Thomas in Beantown. Hal Gill and P.K. Subban on the backend give Montreal an edge.
Tampa Bay/Pittsburgh - Penguins in 6... For Tampa Bay, Steven Stamkos gets his first playoff experience but gets help from Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier. Those three will make it tough on the Pittsburgh defense. Marc-Andre Fleury has been to the Cup Final and won it, but Dwayne Roloson is also an experienced, veteran goaltender. The Penguins did not think they would be playing without Malkin, Cooke and Crosby. Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy have to step up to replace that production. Keep and eye on the Crosby situation and if he returns, watch out.