The NHL playoffs get underway on Wednesday night and here are my predictions for each of the eight first-round series.
#1 Boston Bruins vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens
There’s a truism about heated rivals; the competitiveness of their games are not representative of their respective positions in the standings. In other words, this series should be closer than the “typical” 1 vs. 8 match-up. There’s history to back up this notion. In 2002, eighth-seeded Montreal beat the top-seeded Bruins in a first-round series. Two years later, the Canadiens upset Boston in the 2 vs. 7 match-up. Last year, the No. 1-seeded Canadiens swept all eight regular season games from Boston and grabbed a 3-1 series lead against their arch-rivals. But Boston forced a seventh game before eventually falling to Montreal. This year, however, we will see a more conventional series. The Bruins have been the best team in the East for a reason – they have Tim Thomas, the likely Vezina Trophy winner, a rock-solid defense led by Zdeno Chara and a well-balanced offense. In short, the Bruins don’t seem to have any glaring weaknesses. On the other side, Carey Price has been shaky in net and Andrei Markov, the Canadiens’ best offensive defenseman, is out with an injury. On top of those factors, the Canadiens have been wildly inconsistent throughout the season. It’s true that in the playoffs anything can happen, especially when rivals square off, but in this case bank on the expected. Bruins in Five.
#2 Washington Capitals vs. #7 New York Rangers
Unlike the Boston-Montreal series, this one could get dicey for the higher-seed. The Caps boast an explosive offense and a terrific power-play. They have the league’s leading goal scorer (Alex Ovechkin) and top scoring defenseman (Mike Green). But their team defense was only average – the Caps finished only tied for 19th in team GAA – and questions abound about the ability of Jose Theodore to help Washington go deep in the playoffs. Of course, the Rangers have struggled to score goals this year, so in that regard, it’s not the worst possible matchup for Washington. What makes the match-up with the Rangers potentially problematic for the Caps is Henrik Lundqvist. He’s good enough to “steal” a series for the Rangers. If he can keep Washington’s dangerous offensive weapons at bay, then the Rangers have a shot. Ultimately, I’m picking the Caps to win a close, hard-fought series. Caps in Seven.
#3 New Jersey Devils vs. #6 Carolina Hurricanes
This series pits two teams that were heading in the opposite direction in the final few weeks of the regular season. Before losing their last two games, the Hurricanes had won nine games in a row and had suffered just one regulation loss in 16. The reuniting of Erik Cole with Eric Staal and Cam Ward’s goaltending had a lot to do with Carolina’s run. The Devils, on the other hand, went 5-7-1 in their last 13 (although they did win four of their last five to conclude the regular season). Also, in an interesting scheduling quirk, these teams played three of their four games against one another in the last month (the ‘Canes won two and took three of four overall from the Devils this year). But the Devils are still the Devils – once the playoffs begin, they will exhibit a solid team, limit Carolina’s chances and get their usual suburb goaltending from Marty Brodeur. At some point, one would figure that Carolina is going to cool off from its torrid pace. My guess is going to happen in the first round. Devils in Six.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
The Penguins, not unlike the Hurricanes, hit their groove late in the season. In late February, Sergei Gonchar returned from a preseason injury and head coach Dan Bylsma was promoted from the minors. Since then the Pens have been one of the league’s hottest teams. The difference between Pittsburgh and Carolina (and the reason why I’m picking the Pens) is that the Penguins are playing now the way everyone expected them to play. With Gonchar, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin they should be one of the league’s top clubs. The Flyers are an interesting team; Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are bona-fide superstars and Philadelphia is basically the same team that posted two upsets last year to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. They’ve hit some bumps in the road this year – most recently last Sunday when they blew a 3-2 lead on home ice to the Rangers. The loss cost them home ice in this series. Goaltending questions (again!) have dogged the Flyers this year. The Pens will find a way to take advantage and advance to the second round. Penguins in Six.
#1 San Jose Sharks vs. #8 Anaheim Ducks
This might not be a cakewalk for the Sharks. The Ducks went 7-2-1 in their last 10 to make the playoffs and they’ve still got quite a few pieces left from their 2007 Stanley Cup team. Anaheim just got defenseman Francois Beauchemin back from a long-term injury and he’ll join a back line that includes Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermeyer and Ryan Whitney. But the Sharks were the league’s best team this year. A squad with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle and Devin Setoguchi is formidable enough, but the Sharks are much deeper than that. If San Jose performs the way it did throughout the season, it will win this series. Sharks in Five.
#2 Detroit Red Wings vs. #7 Columbus Blue Jackets
Had the Blue Jackets beaten Minnesota in their last game of the regular season they would have drawn Vancouver instead of the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The Blue Jackets are a great story – they had their best year in franchise history, rookie goaltender Steve Mason is the likely Calder Trophy winner and Ken Hitchcock will deservedly get consideration for Coach of the Year. Even though it’s Columbus’ first trip to the postseason, the team has some veterans like Michael Peca, Freddy Modin, Mike Commodore and Antoine Vermette who have either won Cups or been to the Finals. But the Red Wings are going to be too much for the Jackets. The Red Wings haven’t been quite the same machine they were last year when they captured the President’s Trophy – in particular, their team defense was surprisingly leaky this season. But that won’t handicap the Red Wings in this series. Red Wings in Five.
#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 St. Louis Blues
Like the Blue Jackets, the Blues are a great story. In just the last two months, they vaulted from the bottom of the Western Conference standings to the sixth seed. The Canucks enjoyed an impressive turnaround as well. They endured an eight-game winless skid in January, but after that streak they lost seven games in regulation the rest of the way. This series will come down to the goaltenders. Chris Mason went 17-6-3 down the stretch and is playing the best hockey of his career. Roberto Luongo will be the difference in this series (just as he was in 2007 when the Canucks outlasted the Stars in a wonderful seven-game series). Canucks in Seven.
#4 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #5 Calgary Flames
The Blackhawks are in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and they have a cadre of great young stars in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith to name a few. Conversely, the Flames have made the playoffs for five straight years and are led by Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, who led the league with 45 wins. The ‘Hawks will have to overcome questions about their relative inexperience, although they’ve got Nikolai Khabibulin in net and picked up former Cup winner Sami Pahlsson at the deadline. For the Flames the question revolves around health. They endured so many injuries down the stretch that they had to play their last several games with a short-handed roster. In an interesting note, Khabibulin and Kiprusoff will meet again in the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 Finals. Khabby will provide the ‘Hawks with the necessary stability so that their relative playoff experience won’t be the deciding factor. Also, having home ice in the raucous United Center will be a big key for Chicago, especially if the series goes deep, as I think it will. Blackhawks in Seven.