NHL Playoff Predictions: Breaking Down the Eastern Conference First Round
In my opinion, the most exciting playoff season of the four major sports is upon us, the NHL Playoffs.
We will be treated to some extremely competitive series in the first round, where as we all know, anything can happen.
As the Eastern Conference playoff match-ups have been set, let's take a closer look at what will happen in the first round (and check back later for the breakdown of the Western Conference).
1. Washington Capitals vs. 8. New York Rangers
For the second consecutive year, the Washington Capitals finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
But does that really mean anything?
As we all know, the Capitals lost a heart-breaking series to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs.
It seems that every year, the Capitals get one of the top seeds in the playoffs, yet flounder opportunities, as is evidenced by their lack of Stanley Cups.
This year seems different for Washington though. They have made a much more concerted effort to defense this season, as they are fourth in the NHL in GAA and second in penalty killing. They also haven't relied as heavily on Alexander Ovechkin to carry the team.
The Capitals downfall last year was running into the buzz saw that was Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak.
The Rangers have the same potential this year to pull off a huge upset with Henrik Lundqvist in net. They are fifth in the NHL in GAA, leading me to believe that this could be a more defensive battle than many would expect.
The Rangers have had to play playoff-caliber hockey the last several weeks to make the playoffs, but barely held on after Carolina failed to beat Tampa Bay.
The Rangers will make the series difficult on Washington, but I don't think that they have enough fire power to win four games. Lundqvist will steal a few games, but not the whole series.
Prediction: Washington in 6
2. Philadelphia Flyers vs 7. Buffalo Sabres
What a downfall for the Flyers, after one hell of a run this season. They were in the top spot for nearly the entire season, only to lose it to the Washington Capitals with only one week remaining.
In their last 10 games, the Flyers are 3-4-3, and had to rally on Saturday to beat the New York Islanders to clinch the Atlantic Division over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Flyers can score with anyone, as they have six 20 goal scorers, but can they stop anyone from scoring is the real question?
With Chris Pronger out, and the revolving door at goaltender with Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher, the Flyers will need to score in droves to beat the Sabres.
The Sabres, on the other hand, have been extremely hot as of late, going 8-1-1 in their last 10.
They are deceptively strong offensively (9th in the NHL in goals per game), and have Ryan Miller, who if the 2010 Olympics are any indication, can single-handedly carry a team to the championship game.
Call it a hunch, but much like the Rangers, the Sabres have been playing playoff-caliber hockey for the better part of a month. They have the scoring ability to keep up with the Flyers and the goaltending to steal a few games.
The Sabres are on the way up, while the Flyers are in a free-fall.
Prediction: Sabres in 6
3. Boston Bruins vs 6. Montreal Canadiens
What a war this will be.
Two original six teams.
The near bench-clearing brawl earlier this season.
The fallout from the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty.
Both teams have phenomenal goaltenders in Tim Thomas and Carey Price. Thomas leads the league in GAA and Save Percentage, while Price leads the league in wins.
The Bruins are top five in both goal scored and goals against, while the Canadiens struggle to score (21st in the NHL).
Montreal's heart will carry them far where they lack in offensive fire-power, but Tim Thomas will prove to be too much for the Canadiens.
Montreal will make it interesting as they won the season series 4-2, but ultimately the Bruins will come out on top.
Thomas shuts out the Canadiens in Boston in Game 7, ending Montreal's season.
Prediction: Boston in 7
4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs 5. Tampa Bay Lightning
What a remarkable season for the Pittsburgh Penguins this year.
Prior to the season, much was made about the Penguins new look lines featuring Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin.
Then, Staal had to have foot surgery and broke his hand.
The Penguins only played with Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Staal all in the lineup twice this year.
Yet, they still managed to capture 104 points and the number four seed in the playoffs.
While it is uncertain if Crosby will be able to play in the first round, it may not matter. This team has changed it's style to be much more defensively oriented; something most Penguins fans would think to be impossible given the defensive play of last year (Michalek and Martin are the unsung heroes of the team).
On the other hand, the Lightning struggled the last quarter of the season. They were ahead of Washington for much of the season, yet relinquished the lead.
The Lightning appear to be able to score with anyone with the likes of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. But Stamkos has cooled off from his fast paced start.
They finished the season with only a plus seven goal differential, and have 41 year old Dwayne Roloson as their backstop.
What it all comes down to is what style either team can impose. If this gets into an up-and-down battle, expect the Lightning to come out on top.
But I believe that the Penguins will be able to impose their grind-it-out style on the Lightning, much like they have done all season despite injuries to Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letestu, Jeffrey, Orpik, and a number of others.
Prediction: Penguins in 7
Looking Ahead to the Second Round
Looking forward to the next round based on my predictions, we should have the following match-ups:
1. Washington Capitals vs 7. Buffalo Sabres
3. Boston Bruins vs. 4. Pittsburgh Penguins
These two series would be great, especially the Bruins-Penguins tilt, given the return of Matt Cooke, and the subplot of him injuring Marc Savard last year and causing all of his concussion related problems.
Check back following the first round to see more predictions and enjoy the first round of the playoffs.
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