NHL Playoffs 2012: The Three First-Round Series You Can't Afford to Miss

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In a dream-like, fantasy world for hockey fans, where the beer flows aplenty and wearing a hockey jersey to the office is acceptable, each first-round series would go the distance—seven games apiece of hard-nosed, gritty hockey.

Not to bring everyone back down to earth, or be a buzz-kill, but that scenario is highly unlikely. There will be five- and six-game series, with a sweep or two sprinkled in, but not every series will be great.

Yet, there is the guarantee that a few series will be memorable and worth watching from the opening whistle to the final horn. These series will be a war of wills and attrition, the kind of hockey that distinguishes the NHL postseason from all others.

Here are the three series you can't afford to miss:

 

Series 1: (4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings - Western Conference

Regular Season Series: The two teams split their six-game series, both teams going 2-1 on home ice.

Historic Playoff Results: Detroit beat Nashville in six games in both playoff meetings (2004, 2008)

The Skinny: Hopes are high in the Music City as the Nashville Predators finished ahead of the Red Wings in the standings for the very first time in franchise history. The two teams split the regular season series, with Nashville winning that two most recent tilts. Add to that the flurry of activity that emanated from the Preds' front office, acquiring Paul Gaustad, Andrei Kostitsyn, Hal Gill and re-acquiring Alex Radulov, and the Nashville faithful have their sites set on a real playoff run.

But Detroit, the Predators' biggest rival, stands in their way in the very first round. Injuries plagued the Red Wings all season long and they are just now getting key pieces back. They are anchored by veteran players and have the necessary playoff savvy to overcome any obstacle.

It's always a treat to get two division rivals matching up in the playoffs, especially two that were so evenly matched during the regular season.

Prediction: Predators in six games

 

Series 2: (2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals - Eastern Conference

Regular Season Series: Capitals led 3-1

Historic Playoff Results: Two previous meetings, Boston winning in 1990 and Washington winning in 1998

The Skinny: Can a surging Washington Capitals realize their true potential this late in the season? Can the Bruins defend their 2011 Stanley Cup Championship? The two teams play very different styles of hockey—the Caps more of a run-and-gun style of offense against a defensively responsible Bruins side.

With injuries to key offensive players, like Nathan Horton, the Bruins will have to play an especially tight brand of hockey in front Tim Thomas if they plan to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The pressure of being the defending champions will also present a unique challenge in itself. The Bruins have a target on their back and the Capitals will certainly zero in.

As for the Capitals, a late-season surge reminded everyone in the hockey community why they are such a feared team. With Alex Ovechkin playing like, well Alex Ovechkin, and the newly healthy Nicklas Backstrom back in the lineup, Washington's offense is ready to roll. The biggest question, as it's been in the past is the goaltending, which could cause serious issues on the back end.

One possesses true grit and goaltending prowess, while the other exudes spectacular offensive finish. Two distinct styles. One great series to watch.

Prediction: Capitals in seven games

 

Series 2: (4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers - Eastern Conference

Regular Season Series: Flyers led 4-2

Historic Playoff Results: Philadelphia leads three series to two with Pittsburgh winning the two most recent in 2008 and 2009

The Skinny: A lot of analysts have said, "these two teams don't like each other." Well, I'm sorry to say, it goes far beyond, "not liking." It's more than that. It's about state pride to be the best in the Keystone state. It's about familiarity breeding contempt. It's also about real hatred for an opponent.

This series will serve as the entree for all first round matchups—a star-studded affair with a nasty edge. Look no further than their April 1 matchup, which saw a major hit delivered by Joe Vitale on Danny Briere lead to an all out brawl at center ice with ten players involved. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette went so far as to cross over to the Penguins bench in a verbal skirmish with Pens head man Dan Bylsma. Laviolette took umbrage with Bylsma sending out his checking line late the game.

Both teams possess grit and firepower up front, and both are a big soft on defense and in net. One thing this series will not be short on is goals, altercations and excitement. This is truly the series to watch in the first round.

Prediction: Penguins in six games.

Ryan O'Leary is a writer and researcher for Bleacher Report's Video Production Department with seven years experience in sports media. 

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