Stanley Cup Playoffs 2012: Previewing the Current 1st-Round Matchups

Tab BamfordSenior Writer IApril 6, 2012

Stanley Cup Playoffs 2012: Previewing the Current 1st-Round Matchups

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    Who's ready for the playoffs?

    The first round is set to start on April 11, and there are some fantastic matchups set to hit the ice in the first round this year. From unknowns like the Florida Panthers to the annual faces in Detroit, there are certainly a number of stories to watch this year.

    But how do the teams line up against each other?

    Let's take a look at how the first round matchups, as of Friday morning, look on paper.

    Note: these matchups could very well change by the time the weekend ends the 2011-12 regular season. We're looking at what the matchups might be based on today's standings.

Eastern Conference No. 1 vs. No. 8

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    If the season ended on Friday morning, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals would face off in the 1-8 matchup in the Eastern Conference.

    The Rangers might win the Presidents Trophy, while the Capitals have underwhelmed all year and are still trying to find some consistency.

    Thursday night's injury to Michael Neuvirth adds an element of doubt to a Capitals team that already had more questions than answers, the the Rangers have been pretty consistent all season. While there might ultimately be more high-end talent on the Washington roster, the Rangers look like a winner in four or five games.

Eastern Conference No. 2 vs. No. 7

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    It looks like the division rival Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators will do battle in the postseason after already facing each other six times in the regular season. The Bruins won five of the six regular season meetings, and their experience would figure to make them a favorite in a seven-game series.

    Patrice Bergeron led the Bruins with four goals against the Senators, despite playing in only five of the six games, while Jason Spezza led Ottawa with seven points (two goals, five assists) in six games against Boston.

    Based on their regular-season dominance, Boston looks to advance in five or six games.

Eastern Conference No. 3 vs. No. 6

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    On face value, most fans would assume the New Jersey Devils would have a decided advantage against the Panthers, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2000. But a deeper look into the numbers indicates otherwise.

    The Panthers and Devils actually split their season series 2-2, and Martin Brodeur struggled against Florida (1-2-0, .901 save percentage, 2.63 goals against average). Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrick Elias each had five points in the four games.

    Kris Versteeg dominated the Devils this season, scoring five goals in four games, but only five other Panthers scored a goal against New Jersey. Florida used three different goalies in the four games, with Jose Theodore playing in two (1-0-1, .915 save percentage, 2.40 goals against average).

    This might be the series everyone wants to overlook in the East, but it has the best chance of being a seven-game series. Based on experience and depth, the Devils would appear to have an advantage.

Eastern Conference No. 4 vs. No. 5

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    Philadelphia Flyers.

    Pittsburgh Penguins.

    As Bart Scott once so eloquently said, can't wait.

Western Conference No. 1 vs. No. 8

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    So five different teams have a legitimate chance to be part of this series.

    The No. 1 seed might be the Vancouver Canucks, or it might be the St. Louis Blues.

    The No. 8 seed might be the Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks or Los Angeles Kings.

    Vancouver will likely win the top spot, and Phoenix will have to do some work to get out of the cellar. If those two teams match up, it could be an intriguing battle between a team with two goalies battling for ice time against a team with one goalie who won't let anything past him.

    If the Coyotes face the Canucks (which is a huge if at this point), Vancouver probably advances in five or six games.

Western Conference No. 2 vs. No. 7

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    The consolation series between the Blues Canucks team that doesn't win the top seed will face the consolation team that doesn't win the Pacific (but stays out of the eighth seed).

    Right now, odds are that the Sharks and Blues will do battle. St. Louis has taken the league by storm this year, and plays a strong, physical style of hockey while the Sharks appear to have found some caffeine just in time to wake up and make the playoffs interesting.

    This could be a very entertaining series that, like Florida-New Jersey, could be overlooked but might have a great chance to go seven games. Who wins is a toss-up because these two teams are very similar.

Western Conference No. 3 vs. No. 6

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    If you asked an NHL executive for their best-case-scenario for the first round, they would probably tell you (off the record) that having an L.A.-Chicago Blackhawks series to follow Pittsburgh-Philadelphia would be the best thing that could happen for the game.

    These are two good teams that match up well and that play hard-nosed, quality games in big markets.

    These are the two hottest teams in the west since the trade deadline. L.A. boasts arguably the best netminder in the game and Chicago has the top-scoring offense in the conference. The wild card here is the health of Jonathan Toews, who has been out for over a month.

    This could be an incredible series, but usually the team that has an easier time scoring finds a way to win in the postseason. Chicago's scoring depth probably gets them past the Kings, but it will take six or seven games for this one to finish.

Western Conference No. 4 No. 5

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    Your Central Division special, the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings will renew their rivalry in a seven-game series.

    Detroit has championship experience.

    Nashville is all in, and could be losing key pieces from this year's team to free agency this summer. No team in the NHL is facing the amount of win-now pressure that the Predators are, including the Canucks.

    The two teams split the season series 3-3, and there weren't any overwhelming individual performances on either roster. This looks like a physical, nasty series that could make your television sore by the time the second round starts.

    Based on need to win and health, and home-ice advantage, the Predators would look favored to win this series in six or seven games.