It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Yes it is playoff time. Poolies scramble to get their drafts in order. Beards are grown for good luck. Bars and taverns are stacked with extra beer! This indeed is a wonderful time. And this year’s version of the playoffs promises to be very exciting. No clear-cut favourite for the Stanley Cup which could mean upsets, or just very exciting series that could go 7 games. With that in mind, here are my picks for round one.
New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators.
The Rangers come into this series as heavy favourites, after finishing first in the Eastern Conference. However the Senators have played very well against the Rangers, taking 3 out of 4 games against the Broadway Blueshirts. So there is no shortage of confidence coming from the Canadian Capital. However the playoffs are a different story so we’ll see how each team deals with the pressure. Craig Anderson will have to provide stellar goaltending if the Sens are to be successful. Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza will need to pucks in the net. And Erik Karlsson will have to show he’s no regular season fluke. For the Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist must continue to show his Vezina trophy-like form. The young defence led by Mark Staal, Ryan McDonough, and Michael Del Zotto will need to show maturity and strength. Finally Marion Gaborik, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan will need to provide the offence. Even though the Sens dominated in the regular season, I’m taking the Rangers in 6 because I think Lundqvist is better than Anderson and I don’t trust the Senators D after Karlsson.
Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals.
The defending champs could have their hands full against the underachieving Caps. The Caps did win 3 out of the 4 meetings and have something to prove after a shaky regular season. Alexander Ovechkin is heating up at the right time, scoring 10 goals in his last 11 games. The question mark is in goal as it looks like Braden Holtby will get the start in game one, as both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth are battling injuries. The Bruins will miss Nathan Horton due to a concussion but still possess a solid lineup. The question is can Tim Thomas recapture the form that helped him win the Conn Smythe trophy last year? This could be a terrific series and I think it will be close. I’m taking the Bruins in 7.
Florida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils.
The Panthers return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000, ending the longest playoff drought in the NHL. They will have their hands full against a prickly Devils side. The teams split the 4 regular season meetings, however the Panthers struggled down the stretch, winning only once in their last 6 games. If Florida is to win this series, they will have to get production out of Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Steven Weiss. They will also need to get quality goaltending from Jose Theodore. Finally they will have to get over the playoff jitters. For the Devils, Martin Brodeur will have to dip into the fountain of youth and pretend he’s 25 again. The Devils will need production out of Ilya Kolvachuk, who has a checkered playoff history. Finally, their young defence led by rookie Adam Larsson will have to mature quickly. With that being said, I’m picking the Devils in 6 games because I don’t trust Theodore and the Panthers inexperience will hurt them.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers.
This should be a barnburner. This could be a bloodbath. These two teams do not like each other one bit and emotions will run high. The biggest key for either team will be which team can temper their emotions and focus on the task at hand. The Flyers are led by Claude Giroux who had a fabulous season, notching 28 goals and 93 points. Scott Hartnell provides grit and determination that every playoff club needs. And don’t forget Jaromir Jagr who would love to stick it to his former team. However can Ilya Bryzgalov be trusted? While Bryzgalov is a good regular season goalie, his playoff record is sub par at best. It is worth noting that Bryzgalov dozes off into alternate universes with tigers and other assorted creatures but he must remain focused on stopping the puck. The Penguins are fully healthy for the first time all season and that spells trouble for the Flyers. Sidney Crosby is back and looks to be better than ever. After missing 60 games due to post concussion syndrome, Crosby ended up with 37 points in just 22 games. Evgeni Malkin is a dangerous threat for the Pens. His 50 goals topped the Penguins while his 109 points was good enough to win the Art Ross trophy. James Neal had a breakout year for the Pens, scoring 40 goals while playing alongside Malkin. Kris Letang leads a defence corps with his terrific vision and superior skating ability. Marc-Andre Fleury had a fantastic season and could very well be a candidate for the Vezina. I’m taking the Pens in 6 games only because Fleury is better than Bryzgalov.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings.
The Canucks came oh so close in winning the Cup last season but they do have 2 huge questions they must answer. Is Daniel Sedin healthy? And who will be their goalie? The latest word was that Sedin who is battling a concussion, did not skate today and is listed as a game time decision for game one. Meanwhile Roberto Luongo is under huge pressure in Vancouver to be tougher mentally and lead the Canucks to the Cup. If Luongo does falter, Cory Schneider is more than capable of stepping between the pipes for the Canucks. Up front, the Canucks will rely on Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows to provide the offence. A sleeper might be David Booth who has been a nice midseason pickup from Florida. The Kings have ridden the hot goaltending of Jonathan Quick and will need him to be spectacular if the Kings are to advance. Quick did record a league leading 10 shutouts this season and he could very well steal this series. Quick will need to be good because the Kings offence is putrid. Only Minnesota scored fewer goals than the Kings who registered only 194 total goals this season. With Jeff Carter’s health a question mark, Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams will have to pick up the slack on the goal scoring end. Drew Doughty will need to be better after a disappointing season. The young defenceman has loads of potential, but still struggles with inconsistency. Quick can steal the series, but the Kings don’t have enough offence. I’m picking the Canucks in 6 tough games.
St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks.
These two teams have an interesting playoff history. Back in 2000, the Blues won the President’s trophy, but were shocked in the first round by the upstart Sharks. The Blues got their revenge a year later, but the Sharks dispatched the Blues in 2004. This year? Well the Blues are the surprise team in the NHL by playing strong defence, and a surprise in goal in the name of Brian Elliott. Elliott recorded 9 shutouts this season and played the best hockey of his career. The young defence has a couple of future studs in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. The offence is balanced led by David Backes 24 goals, and the up and coming T.J. Oshie. Don’t forget veteran Jason Arnott who is known to score big goals at clutch times. The Sharks have been the team on the cusp, but never broken the glass ceiling. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have always been reliable in the regular season, but they do disappear in the playoffs. Marleau did have a good playoff last year but did disappear in the Western Final against Vancouver. However Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski cannot be discounted. Both players have been solid playoff performers in the past and the Blues will have to be aware of their presence. The blueline is solid led by Dan Boyle’s offence and Douglas Murray’s stay-at-home style. Antti Niemi has struggled at times for the Sharks, but did win a Cup for Chicago in 2010 so he is a wildcard. The Blues have been a surprise but I’m not sold on Elliott in coming through in the playoffs. Plus the Blues lack the experience in the playoffs that is required. The Sharks are a good first round team so I’m picking San Jose in 6 games.
Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks.
For more on this series, check out my preview here I’m picking the Blackhawks in 6 games.
Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings.
This should be a classic. The Predators have all the tools in place to make a Cup run. Goalie Pekka Rinne has been superb this season recording 43 wins and 5 shutouts while posting a 2.39 GAA. Ryan Suter and Shea Weber are horses on the blueline and are key components for the Preds. Both players are set to be free agents at the end of the season, so they will need to fight off the distractions of big money contracts and focus on winning playoff games. The offence got a boost by the return of Alexander Radulov from the KHL. The silky Russian bring an added level of skill to a team filled with grit. The grit will be supplied by Jordin Tootoo, Matt Halischuk and Paul Gaustad. The Red Wings have a ton of experience but questions remain if they can withstand another Cup run. Nicklas Lidstrom is 41. Tomas Holmstrom is 39. Todd Bertuzzi is 37. Even the wonderful Pavel Datsyuk is 33 and starting to show signs of slowing down. As well Jimmy Howard has never made that big save in the playoffs. If the Red Wings are to succeed in the playoffs, Howard will have to emerge as a star goalie. However I think this is Nashville’s time. I’m picking the Preds in 7 games.
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