It's that time of year - the 1st Round of the NHL Playoffs are upon us. Here are my predictions:
Washington (1) v. NY Rangers (8): Rangers in 7
I'm starting off with a big upset pick. Despite winning the East, the Capitals have been wildly inconsistent all year. This isn't a team built for the playoffs. Coach Bruce Boudreau has got them playing a better, more cohesive defensive system this year than last, but that's not saying much. Also, their goaltending is on the weaker side among the other Eastern playoff teams. The Rangers have one of the best goalies in the league and despite offensive struggles, scored more goals than the Caps all season. New York also outmatches the Caps in size, toughness and night-to-night EFFORT. That said, the Rangers need to watch out for Washington's speed and skill - two things which might end up making my upset pick look like a joke.
Philadelphia (2) v. Buffalo (7): Flyers in 5
The Flyers are arguably the most stacked team in the NHL, especially up front. Given the Sabres' injury woes this year, I'm surprised they made the playoffs, to be honest. Also, Ryan Miller - usually one of the league's top goalies - had a subpar year to say the least. Even though Philly had a fairly weak finish to the regular season, I'm looking for them to roll over the Sabres in short order.
Boston (3) v. Montreal (6): Habs in 7
Easily the most anticipated 1st round series of the playoffs, and you don't have to be a Canadiens fan like me to say that. Underlying the series is a deep-seated hatred between the two clubs, only intensified by the Chara hit on Pacioretty just over a month ago. Though this is arguably a heart-over-head type of prediction, I don't think it's ludicrous by any means to see Montreal coming out on top. Despite Tim Thomas' insane numbers in the first half of the season, he was very much human in the second half. If Carey Price can match the brilliant consistency he's had all year, the goaltending in this series is a wash. Montreal proved they can play against a deep and tough team like Boston by winning the regular season series 4-2. The key will be discipline. If the Habs are sloppy, they're toast. The Habs have done a remarkable job showing they can play solid D all season long without Markov or Gorges. Provided the Habs scorers show up - especially Plekanec, Gionta, and Cammalleri - beating Boston will become more reality than sweet, sweet fantasy.
Pittsburgh (4) v. Tampa Bay (5): Lightning in 6
It's really impressive how well the Penguins have played without leading scorers Crosby and Malkin. They've done a particularly good job from a defensive standpoint. Moreover, goalie Fleury easily outmatches the weak set of guys the Lightning have between the pipes. That said, I think Tampa is so stacked offensively that they can push by Pittsburgh. Perhaps most importantly, there's no sign of Crosby returning in the 1st round; despite being symptom free and doing full workouts, Crosby has yet to be cleared for contact in practice. If he had been available, I think he would've tipped the scales the other way. Since he's not, look for Stamkos, Lecavalier et al to lead the Lightning to victory.
Vancouver (1) v. Chicago (8): Canucks in 5
Vancouver fans should be salivating at facing the defending Stanley Cup champions - a team that has given them the fits in recent playoffs past. Missing many of the big role players that helped them win last year, Chicago doesn't stand a chance against a team that's been firing on all cylinders for nearly the entire season. With two deadly scoring lines, a strong D and Luongo looking like himself, Chicago - who barely squeaked into the playoffs - are looking at a quick and merciless early exit.
San Jose (2) v. Los Angeles (7): Sharks in 6
Losing Kopitar to an injury a couple of weeks ago seems to have done something to the Kings' psyche. For most of this season I might've picked LA over San Jose with little thought. But San Jose had the offensive edge to begin with, and momentum is a big deal in hockey. Look for Niemi, who helped the 'Hawks win it all last year, to outperform the inconsistent Jonathan Quick for a 1st round win.
Detroit (3) v. Phoenix (6): Red Wings in 5
I'm almost more interested to see if the Coyotes will even be able to sellout their playoff home games. Phoenix has the edge in goaltending here (in fact, I don't think Howard will even get Detroit out of the 2nd Round), but in every other category the Wings simply dominate. Time to move this franchise back to Canada, Gary.
Anaheim (4) v. Nashville (5): Ducks in 6
A lot of people are picking Nashville as a potential dark horse candidate this year. Certainly the play of Pikka Rinne gives them a shot at stealing a series. But let's be honest, their top scorer is Sergei Kostitsyn. It's an incredible turnaround for a kid who last year rode more pine than a lumberjack, but his 23 goals doesn't exactly match the output of guys on Anaheim like Corey Perry (50), Teemu Selanne (31) and Bobby Ryan (34). Maybe Rinne will work some magic, but I just don't see the Predators overcoming the odds.