The 2011 NHL playoffs have arrived, and the anticipation and nervous excitement has already begun to build. As with every postseason, fans and critics alike have started their analysis of who is the favorite from each conference to win the Stanley Cup.
Every year, there are vigorous debates on which lower-seeded teams might make an upset or which team could be the Cinderella story and go from relative obscurity to NHL champion.
Here, for your consideration, are four contests in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs which I believe are most likely to yield a victory for the underdog.
The Washington Capitals haven't had the smoothest ride back to the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Despite dominating the league in 2010 with a vicious offense, the Caps were subsequently humbled by Jaroslav Halak and the lowly Montreal Canadiens in the first round. Despite losing some of the depth on their forward lines, Washington was projected to regroup and move forward again as favorites to make it to the Stanley Cup in 2011.
Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals started off slow this year. Things came to a head early in the season as Washington hit an eight-game losing streak in December. This seemed to be a wake-up call for both Ovi and the Capitals as both started to find ways to turn their season around. While the offensive numbers took a big dive, the Capitals have played better in their own end of the rink and found strong goaltending in their trio of young netminders.
For Washington, finishing atop the East was not an easy road but it was also not unexpected. As for New York, many wondered if the Rangers would even make the postseason.
While the Rangers had no question marks about their goaltending, plenty wondered if the Rangers would have enough firepower or depth in their roster to make the cut. Even with a flurry of injuries to their lineup this year, the Rangers found ways to win games and score goals. While they may not have had overwhelming scoring from a singular source like Ovechkin with the Capitals, the Rangers found balanced scoring through their lineup from non-household names like Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan.
In fact, if you look at the stats, New York scored more goals this year than Washington while surrendering only a single goal more than the Capitals. Another important stat is that Washington won only four more games than the Rangers.
In truth, both of these clubs are not very far apart. What will likely decide this series is goaltending. In this aspect, the Rangers with Henrik Lundqvist hold an edge. While Washington has, to its delight, a group of young and talented goalies led by Michal Neuvirth, there can be little doubt Lundqvist is the top goalie in this series.
The Capitals are in some ways a much more complete team than last year's squad. However, they run the distinct possibility of running into yet another hot goalie. With the pressure squarely on Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals, look for the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist to pull off the upset and avenge their 2009 playoff collapse against Washington in the first round.
For a while, the Philadelphia Flyers looked as though they would run away with the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately the Flyers hit a snag in the final month of the season and were relegated to finishing second.
Nonetheless the Flyers boast a deep and formidable lineup. Eight players scored at least 40 points, led somewhat surprisingly by Claude Giroux's 76. Philadelphia also found a gem in rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Although Bob's performance declined slightly in the second half of the season, Brian Boucher has alleviated some of the pressure on the young Russian's shoulders.
The Flyers came so close last year in what was a surprise run to the Stanley Cup finals. Despite losing to Chicago in six games, Philly proved that its depth and toughness could take it farther than most people gave them credit. They will need all of those strengths and more if they hope to repeat a trip to the finals, especially against the Buffalo Sabres.
Buffalo had a slow start to the season. Despite finishing with 100 points the previous year and winning the Northeast, many expected the Sabres to take a step back and possibly miss the playoffs. While Buffalo's inconsistencies almost kept them out, a strong finish in the final weeks of the season assured a date with the Flyers.
Despite the loss of Derek Roy after just 35 games, Buffalo found ways to compensate for his lost scoring. Such was the case that, including Roy, the Sabres had 11 players that put up double-digit figures in goals. Thomas Vanek had a strong year to help lead Buffalo's offense with 73 points. Buffalo's key strength however is in goal.
Goalie Ryan Miller did not put up the same numbers as last year when he captured the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender. He nonetheless had a solid season, and if his performance from last year's playoffs is any indication, the Sabres could make a deep run.
Much like the Washington/New York series, the chance for upset lies in Buffalo's strength of goaltending. While Miller missed some time at the end of the season with injury, his most recent playoff appearances suggest he is the solid pick over Bobrovsky, who has yet to test his mettle in the postseason. Should Bobrovsky falter, Boucher will be left to take the reigns. Although he played well this year, Boucher saw only limited action in the second half.
While Philadelphia has all the tools necessary to make another long playoff run, they enter the postseason with little momentum. Buffalo on the other hand has been red-hot down the stretch. Should Ryan Miller return to form and with an offense clicking at the right time against the Flyers uncertain goaltending, the Sabres could send the defending Eastern Conference champions packing.
The Detroit Red Wings and Phoenix Coyotes will have a rematch of their first-round meeting in the 2010 playoffs. The Wings defeated the Coyotes in seven games. Although Game 7 was a 6-1 blowout in Detroit's favor, the series was much closer than that.
Unlike last season, the Wings will hold home-ice advantage over the Desert Dogs. Detroit spent most of the 2010-11 regular season in second place in the West, only to be knocked down to third by the San Jose Sharks late in the year. Despite that, the Red Wings remain a strong contender to make it to the Cup finals.
Detroit's offense was second in the league behind only Vancouver only by a goal. The Red Wings were able to persevere through a multitude of injuries to key players at various times this season and found scoring from not just their deep and talented offensive lines, but also from their defense as well.
A potential hazard for Detroit could be its goaltending and defensive play. The Wings surrendered 241 goals, the most of any playoff team. Jimmy Howard, who had an outstanding rookie campaign, looked far less impressive this season despite his 37 wins. This could prove to be a fatal flaw for the Coyotes to exploit.
While Detroit remain perennial contenders, Phoenix has suddenly developed into a perennial conundrum. The last two seasons the Coyotes have been predicted to finish far out of the playoffs, and yet they continue to surprise everyone except for perhaps themselves.
Not blessed with the depth of talented players like Detroit, Phoenix has instead created a very disciplined team focus. With no superstars, the Coyotes have built a reputation on stingy defensive play and being highly opportunistic. Even so, none of that will matter without the solid play of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryzgalov remains perhaps the most unsung goaltender in the league and despite a drop in numbers, the 2010 Vezina runner-up continues to be the Coyotes' focal point.
This matchup has the potential to go all the way to seven games. The Red Wings' offensive juggernaut will be pitted against the Coyotes' stalwart defensive trap. The Wings were fortunate to advance past Phoenix last spring. Now with a chance for revenge, the Coyotes will have to exploit a vulnerable Red Wings defense and shut the game down early. If they do, Phoenix will finally move on to the second round for the first time since relocating from Winnipeg.
In what is perhaps the most anticipated matchup of the quarterfinals, Vancouver will take its team-record 117 points and Presidents Trophy-winning season against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Canucks and Hawks meet each other in the playoffs for the third straight year. Chicago has defeated Vancouver the previous two occasions, both in the second round. Although it's not the first time Vancouver is favored over Chicago, the Canucks have never brought this stacked a lineup into a series against Chicago.
Not much can be said about Vancouver's stellar season that hasn't already been stated ad nauseum; still, the facts are the facts. The league leaders in goals for, goals against, power-play percentage and a mildly disappointing second in penalty killing, Vancouver can dominate any matchup statistically.
The Sedin twins are playing at their peak, with Daniel leading the league in points (104) and Henrik leading in assists (75). Coupled with Ryan Kesler and a deep supporting cast, the Canucks can keep the pressure on in the opponent's end of the rink. Perhaps even stronger than their offense is their blue line, which may be the deepest in the league.
What is most impressive is that with the exception of Christian Ehrhoff, all of the Canucks defensemen have missed stretches of time with injury this season. With the defensive corps getting healthy in time for the postseason and the a goalie tandem of Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, the Canucks are poised to deliver.
While Chicago's season may not have gone as smoothly as Vancouver's, they still boast a powerful and talented roster in their own right.
Unfortunately Chicago held a minor fire sale after winning the Stanley cup last year to comply with the salary cap. This took away much of the vaunted depth that made Chicago such a dominating club. The Hawks lineup still contains all of the top-end talent that led them to victory last year. Jonathan Toews put together an MVP performance to lead his club into the playoffs and supported by the fourth ranked powerplay, Chicago still has plenty of firepower.
Defensively the Hawks aren't as strong as last year. What may be of bigger concern is their goaltending. While rookie Corey Crawford put together a great year and will warrant Calder Trophy consideration, he will have to find his playoff legs fast against Vancouver. If he can keep his composure and poise, Chicago's chances will vastly improve.
While on paper the Canucks should walk through the Blackhawks, those who have seen these two teams battle before know it will not be that simple. The rivalry that has developed between these two teams has resulted in some hotly contested matches.
Chicago does hold the mental edge over Vancouver. That intangible is one that can completely turn a series upside-down. With how hard the Blackhawks will play, and all the pressure on Vancouver, this matchup seems ripe for a Chicago upset.