The NHL postseason is the most exciting part of the hockey season, and the 2013 edition of the playoffs is even more intriguing after the lockout-shortened regular season.
Which conference has the better Round 1 matchups?
While a seven-game series is the ultimate test to decide the better team, winning the early games and taking the advantage is the key to advancing to the next round.
With Round 1 kicking off in grand fashion, this is how all of Thursday’s action will play out.
Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens: Game 1—Series tied 0-0
There is no doubt that the No. 2-seeded Montreal Canadiens are the favorites in this series, but the No. 7-seeded Ottawa Senators proved throughout the 2013 season that they can’t be underestimated.
Add in the fact that there is a rivalry between these teams—just ask Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette—and this series is shaping up to be an instant classic:
Montreal is a team predicated on stellar goaltending from Carey Price and the timely scoring of the offensive unit. Led by the gifted playmaking of Max Pacioretty and defender P.K. Subban, the Canadiens have become one of the most dynamic scoring teams in the NHL.
The Senators don’t come close to matching up with Montreal in terms of goal scoring—27th in the league with just 2.3 goals per game—but Ottawa knows how to play defense. Not only do the Senators rank first against the power play (penalty kill percentage of 88), the team boasts the second-best defense in the NHL.
Thursday’s matchup will be a good gauge of how ready the Senators are for the Canadiens’ offensive onslaught and should be an inclination of how this entire series will play out.
Game 1 Prediction: Montreal 3, Ottawa 2
New York Rangers at Washington Capitals: Game 1—Series tied 0-0
In one of the most intriguing matchups of the first round, the No. 3-seeded Washington Capitals will take on the No. 6-seeded New York Rangers.
With some of the biggest stars in the league on both teams, this is a marquee series for the NHL.
The Capitals don’t come into this series touted because of their defensive play (18th overall defensively), but, instead, because their offense is so talented (fourth in goals per game and first on the power play) that it made up for the franchise’s defensive inefficiencies.
Led by bona fide star Alex Ovechkin (32 goals and 24 assists for 56 points), the Capitals will give the defensive-minded Rangers everything the team can handle. New York’s rebuttal will be arguably the best goalie in the league right now, though, in Henrik Lundqvist (2.05 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage).
Both sides bring so much raw talent to this matchup that the only real difference is the home-ice advantage. If the Capitals can win Game 1 from Washington, the door will be open for the team to go on and win this series.
Game 1 Prediction: Washington 4, New York 2
Los Angeles Kings at St. Louis Blues: Game 2—Blues lead 1-0
The Western Conference playoffs have already commenced, and one of the most eagerly anticipated first-round matchups has been the No. 4-seeded St. Louis Blues against the defending Stanley Cup champions and No. 5-seeded Los Angeles Kings.
Both teams are extremely physical and love to take the body in the defensive end and on the attack. Add in the raw skill and youth from each lineup, and there is no question that this entire series could mirror the 2-1 overtime thriller from Game 1.
After a wild first matchup in this series, Grantland head honcho Bill Simmons couldn’t pass up an opportunity to make a joke:
We've seen the goalie pulled twice in this Kings-Blues game. I'll hold off on the Antonio Cromartie joke.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) March 6, 2013
St. Louis’ Alexander Steen was the unlikely hero in the first game, but with every player shifting into a defensive mindset, this series has become all about which team can force the most mistakes and which team can capitalize on those mistakes.
The Kings and Blues will not have the high scoring that many fans like, but this will be fundamental hockey that the sport was built on.
Game 2 Prediction: St. Louis 2, Los Angeles 1
Detroit Red Wings at Anaheim Ducks: Game 2—Ducks lead 1-0
While there is no question that the Ducks deserved the No. 2 seed, the fact that the No. 7 seed was the Detroit Red Wings couldn’t have been any worse luck for Anaheim.
The Red Wings are still one of the most gifted teams in the league despite massive offseason turnover, but as shown in Game 1, the Ducks have just as much skill on the defensive end than Detroit and more raw offensive skill overall.
Led by the trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, Anaheim remains a serious Stanly Cup favorite this year, but that doesn’t mean the Red Wings will go down without a fight.
As long as veterans Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are still healthy and on the ice, there is always a chance Detroit steals a series victory. The Red Wings will draw even in Game 2 and make this a very interesting series throughout.
Game 2 Prediction: Detroit 3, Anaheim 1