Admittedly, I’m not the sharpest when it comes to being successful in a bracket pool, be it the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament or the Stanley Cup playoffs. For that reason alone, I’m thankful there is no element of bracketology in this feature – just my opinion and who I think is going to be left standing at the end of the 2011-12 first round series.
One thing that jumps off the page as I look down the matchups: there is an intriguing and unique mix of teams in this year’s tournament. There are underdogs (Florida Panthers) who, outside of their loyal fans, have the confidence of a rare group of pundits. Then, we have the heavyweights like the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, a collection of clubs that both score at will and play a frustrating defensive style.
Finally, there is a profound element of star power: Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux, Zdeno Chara, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin are just a handful of the marquee names teeing it up for a shot at the Cup. Their respective teams all took different routes to get into the dance, but as the tale goes, once your ticket is punched... anything can happen.
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Let’s get started with Mix’s Picks for tonight’s opening-round series:
EASTERN CONFERENCE SERIES #1
#4 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS. #5 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center | Pittsburgh, PA
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network (HD)
MIXER’S TAKE: Remember the late regular-season game between these two teams on April 1? I’m sure the image will be burned into the brains of hockey fans who watched: Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato and Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette jawing at each other from their benches, unhappy with how the final minutes unfolded in a Philadelphia win at CONSOL. It’s just the tip of the iceberg for this donnybrook of a first-round series, which on paper appears to have the most potential for raw hockey entertainment.
Two key factors (one per team) stand out: the health of the Penguins’ star players and the consistency of the Flyers goaltending. Ilya Bryzgalov has been a stud since the calendar turned to March and that is exactly what the Flyers need. Yes, they went to the Cup Final a few years ago on the shoulders of Michael Leighton, but this year is far different. These two dynamic offensive clubs (first and second in overall scoring during the regular season) will trade punches in what figures to be a taxing, enthralling and lengthy series.
PREDICTIONS: Penguins win in six games - check out Bill and Bob's selections below.
WESTERN CONFERENCE SERIES #1
#4 NASHVILLE PREDATORS VS. #5 DETROIT RED WINGS
WHERE: Bridgestone Arena | Nashville, Tenn.
WHEN: 8 p.m., CNBC (HD)
MIXER’S TAKE: At least for my money, this series is the hardest to predict. Why? Because as cliché as it sounds, these two teams are about as evenly-matched as they come. They both play tremendously structured “team” games and support the puck better than most in the NHL. The Red Wings want the puck and rarely give it up, while the Predators are known for coveting the rubber biscuit and outworking teams below the face-off dots. If there is a weakness for Mike Babcock’s club, it has been the play away from Joe Louis Arena. Detroit is just okay on the road and Bridgestone Arena is not a jovial place if you’re the visiting squad, which seems to play into Nashville’s hands with home-ice advantage.
But... I see another level being approached by the Red Wings’ star players like Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and the suddenly-lethal Valtteri Filppula, who has enjoyed a career year and is approaching elite status. Jimmy Howard has struggled with injuries but is back, healthy, and ready to roll between the pipes, and if he can merely keep pace with Pekka Rinne, the Red Wings will emerge from the first round.
PREDICTIONS: Red Wings in seven games - check out Bill and Bob's selections below.
WESTERN CONFERENCE SERIES #2
#1 VANCOUVER CANUCKS VS. #8 LOS ANGELES KINGS
WHERE: Rogers Arena | Vancouver, B.C.
WHEN: 10:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network (HD)
MIXER’S TAKE: Every playoff season has one of “those” series. You know, a matchup that doesn’t seem like it could last longer than 10 days and could be a walk in the park for the high seed. This is one of them (at least for me). Only problem: I can’t figure out why.
There's always a reason and the Canucks are loaded for bear and were one of the NHL’s hottest clubs as the regular season concluded. Former Carolina Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice, now an analyst for the NHL Network, made an interesting point about this series last night: the key player is Cory Schneider. “If you don’t see him, it means the Canucks are on a roll,” Maurice said. “If you do see him, the Canucks are in trouble.” I feel the same way, but I don’t think we will be seeing anyone other than Roberto Luongo in net for Vancouver. This could be a quick series, simply because the Canucks play the same high-octane game at home and on the road.
PREDICTIONS: Canucks sweep - check out Bill and Bob's selections below.
Editor’s note: be sure to check BlueJackets.com the remainder of the week as Rob offers “Mix’s Picks” for the remaining opening-round playoff series on Thursday and then the final series to begin (FLA vs. NJ) on Friday.