2011 NHL First-Round Playoff Predictions: Contenders vs Pretenders

Lorne SmiloviciContributor IApril 11, 2011

2011 NHL First-Round Playoff Predictions: Contenders vs Pretenders

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    Right after the final regular season game is played in the NHL fans all across the globe sit on the edge of their seats waiting for the first puck drop of playoff hockey and thankfully we are almost there.

    As of right now many people are doing their best to predict which teams they think will make it out of the first round and potentially hoist the cup when the playoffs are all said and done. With that being said I am one of those fans.

    For every upcoming round of the playoffs I will give my two cents worth on which teams I think will win each series and also compare prior round predictions and see how close my predictions were.

(1) Washington Capitals vs (8) New York Rangers

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    Last year in the playoffs saw the powerhouse team of Washington lose to the tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Michael Cammalleri. This year the Caps maybe in tough again against the Rangers.

    If the old saying is true that goaltending is needed to win in the playoffs then the Rangers may have a shot, frankly they have a really good chance. If Henrik Lundqvist can stand on his head like he has all season long and somehow find the same magic that Halak did, then this series will go the distance.

    The Caps have a large chip on their shoulder from last year's playoff blowup so it wouldn't be surprising if Ovechkin and company become a team possessed. On paper this team is as deep as they come with each line stacked with loads of talent but for some reason they just haven't performed at their full potential when it matters the most. If Semin, Ovechkin and Backstrom click on all cylinders than there is no reason why the Caps shouldn't come out of the first round.

    When it's all said and done this will have been one of the closer and most entertaining first-round matchups.

    Prediction: Caps win series in seven.

(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs (7) Buffalo Sabres

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    If you turn back the clock one year ago it was the Sabres who had home ice in the first round and the Flyers who squeaked in towards the end of the playoffs. Fast forward to today and it is the exact opposite.

    The funny thing about last year was that the Flyers shocked the hockey world by making it to the Finals whereas the Sabres where first-round casualties. Both team's playoff performances proved who were and still are the better team. 

    This series looks like it will be an overwhelming matchup of sorts. Although the Sabres will probably get destroyed they still deserve credit where credit is due for even making it to the playoffs this year. Everyone including myself thought that Lindsey Ruff was crazy when he guaranteed that his last place team at the time would make it to the playoffs, but he was right.

    It seems as if the Sabres miraculous turn around will all be for nothing after they face the dangerous Flyers in the first round.

    Prediction: Flyers win series in five.

(3) Boston Bruins vs (8) Montreal Canadiens

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    Plain and simple this series is going to be a really good one. Anytime the Bruins and Habs lock horns both teams play their best hockey so there should be no surprise that this series will be a tough fought one and maybe a classic. Both teams hate each other's guts and each game should be filled with tons of intensity and gritty play.

    As a Habs fan it hurts me to say this but as of right now the Bruins are the odds on favorite to win the series. The Bruins have built their team around a strong defensively minded system and their philosophy pays off. In addition to having one of the best all around teams their goaltending has been lights out. After a rough year last year Thomas has rekindled his magic from his Vezina trophy run two years ago and does not look like he's slowing down. Not only is Thomas playing at a phenomenal level, if for some reason he goes down with an injury the Bruins are fortunate to have another goalie in Rask who can help win in the playoffs.

    If any team could upset the Bruins in the playoffs it actually would be the Habs. Last year the Habs almost completed one of the most impressive playoff runs in history by beating two heavily favored teams in the Capitals and Penguins. The major factors of their playoff greatness from last year was again because of the contributions from Cammalleri and Halak. This year though Halak is gone and Price is in charge of goaltending for the Habs and has done a very good job so far.

    In his young career Price hasn't been the playoff savior that the Habs have hoped for but all year he has been facing adversity and triumphing over all of his critics. We'll just have to wait and see what he has in store for the playoffs.

    Prediction: Bruins in a very close seven.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs (5) Tampa Bay Lightning

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    As of right now this series is a little tougher to call than most because the Penguins may or may not have the best player in the NHL for this series. To be fair I will hypothetically consider Crosby coming back around the third game of the series.

    The picture above is illustrating the face of the NHL in Crosby facing off against the ever rising star of Stamkos. If all of the pieces of the puzzle were in place and the Penguins had a healthy Crosby and Malkin for the playoffs this would be the most exciting matchup hands down. But as of late Malkin can't find a way to stay healthy and Crosby's status is a big question mark.

    So what this series boils down to is if Crosby can play than this will be a competitively fought series and should go the distance but if Crosby doesn't come back by the third or even fourth game, than it could be a romp for the Lightning. The Lightning have a very intriguing lineup with their only real whole being their goaltending. Can the aging Dwayne Roloson take the Lightning to the Stanley Cup? I doubt it, but he is more than enough of a goaltender to beat the Penguins if they're missing Crosby.

    I thought my prediction would only be fair if I make two: one with and one without Crosby.

    Prediction A: Lightning win in five without the Penguins having Crosby.

    Prediction B: Lightning win in seven with the Penguins having Crosby.

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs (8) Chicago Blackhawks

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    Just like the Eastern Conference No. 1 against No. 8 matchup, this will be no cake walk for the Canucks. For the third year in a row the Canucks have to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. 

    Its hard to comprehend that the Blackhawks have taken such a nosedive after winning the cup last year. But this proves that chemistry is as important as talent in sports because they have lost six players from last year's championship squad and look like a totally different team.

    The Canucks on the other hand also look like a different team but for good reasons only. This team is the deepest team in the league and won the President's Trophy for a reason. Anything short of the cup will be a major disappointment. If you have a team with back to back scoring champions and arguably the best goaltender today in the NHL, you're the favorite to win it all hands down.

    In order for the Canucks to conquer their quest for the cup they must defeat the reigning champs. In a sense the Canucks couldn't be any happier with their draw of the Blackhawks in the first round. Sure the Blackhawks have had the Canucks number the past two years in the playoffs, but this will be a really good test early and could give the Canucks the momentum to make it all the way to the big dance at the end.

    Prediction: Canucks win series in six.

(2) San Jose Sharks vs (7) Los Angeles Kings

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    This series should be as obvious as any to pick a winner. There is one team in the Sharks who is full of perennial all stars and the team as a whole is completely rolling, where as you have another in the Kings who due to injuries is falling apart at the wrong time.

    If the Kings could have stayed healthy this time of year they would have been one of my dark horses in to go really far in the playoffs. But the reality is the Kings have lost key pieces in Kopitar and Williams. There have been reports that Williams has been practicing and might be ready sometime in the first round, but he will not be playing at the same level that Kings fans are accustomed to seeing him play at. Even if he does play the Kings cannot win without Kopitar.

    As for the Sharks they are healthy and ready to show all their haters that they can win in the playoffs. I must admit that I am one of the many who doubt that this team can win when it counts, but this may be the year they prove to everyone that they are good enough for two reasons. Firstly, they got rid of the choke-show in Evgeni Nabokov who has done nothing for them in the playoffs and replaced him with last year's Stanley Cup champion goalie Antti Niemi who could be the difference maker.

    Secondly up until a few months ago, the Sharks actually were going under the radar because of their early struggles. This may work towards their benefit because after their early troubles the expectations of this team and the spotlight slowly diminished so the pressure is not as strong on this team as years past.

    Prediction: Sharks win series in five.

(3) Detroit Red Wings vs (6) Phoenix Coyotes

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    Last year the Coyotes and Red Wings treated all NHL fans to a really exciting series excluding the game seven slaughtering by the Red Wings. This year it's safe to say that this series should go the distance once again but with the Coyotes' experience from last year it should be even closer.

    The Coyotes have proven to me that last year was no fluke taking the experienced Red Wings to a game seven where they fell apart. Nevertheless this team looks stronger and poised to have a different ending to last year's series. I truly feel that too many people are sleeping on the Coyotes because they have an almost identical lineup to last year and are more experienced thanks to that hard fought series. If Ilya Bryzgalov can find the same form as he has had during the regular season than he alone can win this series for the Coyotes.

    Something seems to be missing to me this year for the Red Wings but I can't put my finger on it. This team is as professional as it gets bringing a solid contender almost yearly to the playoffs, but Jimmy Howard still hasn't proven to be a playoff ready goalie. Recent struggles aside, everyone knows if a team makes it to the playoffs they have a shot to win the cup, but the Red Wings are quite unfortunate that they have to face a very balanced team in the Coyotes who match up really well against them.

    Prediction: Coyotes win series in seven.

(4) Anaheim Ducks vs (5) Nashville Predators

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    The final matchup in the first round should be another good one in the Ducks facing off against the Predators. Both teams were as hot as any coming into the playoffs and should create a very intriguing matchup.

    Either team can win this series really, but the edge goes to the Ducks as long as Jonas Hiller can stay healthy. I'm really high on the Ducks this year and think they can surprise many people but they have a really tough first rounder against the Predators. On one hand the Ducks have one of the best offenses in the game and a really solid defense, but the real key to their success is whether or not Hiller will be 100 percent healthy in the playoffs. If he's healthy the Ducks will be a tough opponent against any team in a seven-game series.

    As for the Predators they are a very similar team to the Coyotes because their real superstar is their goalie Pekka Rinne and the rest of their team is just balanced out. If this series ends up being a low scoring affair, then it's hard not to pick the Predators as the victors because they have a really good defense. However, if they are down about three or more goals in a game it will be tough for them to catch up with their scoring lineup.

    Prediction: Ducks in series in seven.

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