EDITOR'S NOTE: BlueJackets.com's Rob Mixer is notorious for his terrible playoff predictions, so he's back to drop them once again. Let him know how bad they are by tweeting him at @RobMixer.
OTTAWA VS. MONTREAL
This is a really interesting series, perhaps the most interesting, of the opening round slate. On one hand you have the hottest team in the league, one that blew past the Boston Bruins to get in the tournament and rode Andrew Hammond’s historic goaltending run into the postseason. On the other is a team backstopped by arguably the league’s MVP and top goaltender in Carey Price, a Montreal Canadiens squad that boasts excellent special teams and won the Atlantic Division.
For whatever reason, Price has not fared well against the Senators this season, but as we all know, you can pretty much wipe the slate clean once the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. What’s key (for me) is whether Ottawa can sustain its momentum from that late-season run and if the Canadiens’ solid defensive structure will be able to slow up a Senators team that’s been finding the net more often lately.
There are some ridiculously good matchups in this series, too; Erik Karlsson vs. PK Subban on defense (two of the game’s most skilled and dynamic defensemen), Hammond vs. Price in goal, and what figures to be a spirited series between two clubs separated by less than 150 miles. Can the Senators win more than one game at the Bell Centre, one of the NHL’s most difficult places to play? If so, this series sets up favorably for Ottawa.
PREDICTION: Senators in 7
ISLANDERS VS. CAPITALS
How big does that shootout loss to the Blue Jackets last weekend loom for the Islanders? Sure, it spoiled the party to close the regular season history book at Nassau Coliseum, but more importantly, it cost the Islanders home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. That’s quite shocking, actually, considering how strong the Islanders were throughout the season (for a significant period of time, they sat atop the Metropolitan Division before a late-season swoon dropped them to third).
So now, the young Islanders have to start on the road against a Capitals team that’s playing a well-structured, solid two-way game under coach Barry Trotz and looks as equipped as ever to contend for the Stanley Cup — and a big factor is their special teams, which could play a huge role in this series. The Islanders’ regular season penalty kill was 26th in the NHL (78 percent), while the Capitals boasted the NHL’s No. 1 power play (25.3 percent) and have one of the game’s best goal scorers, Alex Ovechkin, running the show on the man advantage.
In my mind, this series could very easily come down to goaltending (cliche alert): can Jaroslav Halak step up and be the guy for the Islanders after a solid 38-win regular season? And for the Capitals, is Braden Holtby’s Vezina-caliber form in the regular season going to be their backbone in the postseason? If it’s the latter, I like the Capitals to advance.
PREDICTION: Capitals in 6
BLACKHAWKS VS. PREDATORS
I can’t wait to watch how this series unfolds. What a great job Peter Laviolette did this season in turning the Predators around, using an influx of offense and molding it into his attacking style of play to lead Nashville back to the playoffs. If you look at the key positions, the Predators are as well-suited as anyone in the Western Conference: they have a balanced forward attack with a couple of studs up front in James Neal and Filip Forsberg, a scary good defense led by the stout pairing of Shea Weber/Roman Josi and one of the NHL’s best goalies in Pekka Rinne — who could be one of the stars of this tournament, especially if the Predators hope to make a deep run.
A healthy Rinne has been vital to the Predators’ success this season and it’s more than a sneaking suspicion that he will have a hand in how far Nashville advances, and this is a franchise and fan base that’s yearning for some tangible playoff success after a history speckled with early exits.
Oh, their first round opponent? Just one of the most successful teams of the last five years that’s getting its superstar (Patrick Kane) back in time for Game 1 tonight. The Blackhawks didn’t win the Central Division, which is kind of a surprise, and at one point fell to a wild card position in the Western Conference before qualifying as the division’s third seed last week. The addition of Kane is a huge boost, but they’ve also been playing well without him; another shocking stat is that, despite missing the Blackhawks’ final 21 regular season games, Kane finished second on the team in scoring with 27 goals and 64 points. Chicago is a fast, skilled, four-line team that doesn't yield much in the matchup department, making them an extremely tough out…but I think the Predators are up for it with Rinne being the difference.
PREDICTION: Predators in 7
FLAMES VS. CANUCKS
An all-Canadian first round series sounds pretty awesome, and even more so when it's two division rivals going at it. The Flames were one of the NHL’s best stories all season long, defying some not-so-rosy analytics numbers to get into the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 — and they’re seeking to win their first playoff series since losing to Tampa in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. To no one’s surprise, this is a hard-working, Bob Hartley coached Calgary team that prides itself on a relentless mentality with a few remarkable comebacks to serve as evidence, including a four-goal third period rally in Ottawa late in the regular season. The Flames have some pop up front and some experience on the back end, and some playoff experience with Jonas Hiller between the pipes, so they’re going to give the Vancouver Canucks all they can handle.
I like the Canucks, too, perhaps because of their under-the-radar season (at least that’s how it feels) and they aren’t saddled with a ton of pressure or expectations in coach Willie Desjardins’ first season. Of course, the Sedin twins still drive the bus but the Canucks’ supporting cast is solid; Radim Vrbata is now on Vancouver’s second line after starting the season with the Sedins, and that’s added some secondary scoring on a unit anchored by center Nick Bonino, who was acquired by the Canucks last summer in the Ryan Kesler trade. I’m interested to see how Eddie Lack fares in net for Vancouver, as No. 1 goalie Ryan Miller isn’t quite ready to play following a knee injury suffered Feb. 22. If Lack can make some big saves early and give the Canucks confidence, I like their chances — but then, what happens when Miller is ready to go? This is one of the hardest opening round series to predict.
PREDICTION: Canucks in 6