It's hard to predict postseason results, especially in a balanced league like the NHL. However, some series in the first round of the 2012 NHL Playoffs are more clear-cut than others. Not accounting for serious injury to key players or a complete faltering, several teams' path to the second round is almost inevitable.
New York Rangers
The Ottawa Senators cannot compete with the first seed in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers have better depth on offense and defense, more scoring ability, better shutdown defense and arguably the best goaltender in the NHL in Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers took a 1-0 series lead last night, defeating the Senators 4-2 and dominated much of the play.
There is a significant drop-off in scoring after the Senators' first line, which features three NHL All-Stars in Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michaelek, and other than Erik Karlsson, no Ottawa defenseman is overly impressive. The Rangers blueline unit, led by shutdown defenseman Dan Girardi and offensive threat Michael Del Zotto, was one of the best in the league this season.
The Senators are not ready to win a championship. The Rangers are. Ottawa might sneak in a win or two to make it a series, but ultimately, the Rangers will advance to the next round.
New Jersey Devils
The NHL playoff format allows the winner of every division at least the third seed in the playoffs. Despite winning the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference with only 94 points, eight behind the New Jersey Devils, the Panthers are technically the higher-seeded team. Despite the higher ranking on paper, the Panthers will not be able to beat the Devils on the ice.
Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, even at age 39, wins the goaltending matchup against the Panthers' José Theodore, and the Devils have lethal goal-scorers in Ilya Kovalchuck and Zach Parise. The Panthers defense is good, maybe even better than the Devils blueliners, but lack of scoring depth and the Devils' stingy team-defense will be the reason New Jersey advances to the next round.
The Panthers/Devils series kicks off tonight in Sunrise, Florida, the first playoff game in southern Florida since 2000.
San José Sharks
The Sharks are a seventh seed in the West, but still a very dangerous team. San José has three 30-plus goal scorers in Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, and a tremendous setup man in Joe Thornton. Top defensemen Dan Boyle and Brent Burns scored nine and 11 goals, respectively, and both finished with positive plus/minus rankings. Goaltender Antti Niemi finished the regular season with decent numbers (2.42 GAA and a .915 save percentage), and has valuable playoff experience from a 2010 Stanley Cup run with Chicago.
Conversely, the Blues leading goal-scorer, team captain David Backes finished with only 24 goals, and David Perron was the only other Blues player with more than 20. The team's strong overall defense and unbelievable goaltending from both Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak earned the them the Western Conference's second seed, but none of what happened in the regular season matters in the playoffs.
In a series featuring a highly offensive-leaning team against a highly defensive one, the Sharks will be able to outscore the Blues despite St. Louis' tight defensive play.
Can the Sharks upset the Blues?
The Bruins boast some of the best team depth in the NHL, and they won the Cup last year. Washington is a highly-skilled team that hasn't lived up to expectations this season. A mid-season coaching change failed to fire up the Capitals, and lingering injuries to several key players have Washington performing below their capabilities.
Tim Thomas wins the goaltending battle against 22-year-old Braden Holtby, who played in the ECHL playoffs two years ago, and the Capitals' big scorers, even team captain Alexander Ovechkin, are nullified by the scoring depth of the Bruins. Boston had six 20-plus goal scorers this season. Lastly, the Capitals defense is no match for Boston's blueline crew led by the 6'9" Zdeno Chara.
After a relatively boring 1-0 win to take a 1-0 series lead, Boston should be able to walk away with the series in five or six games.
It looks like a pretty straightforward first round in the Eastern Conference, with the potential for a few upsets in the West. The teams play a best-of-seven series to account for off-nights, but the better team comes out on top at the end.