At the end of the regular season we saw two teams, the Dallas Stars and the Carolina Hurricanes, miss out on their chance of making the playoffs by losing their final game of the season. Ultimately succumbing to the pressure that trying to make the playoffs undoubtedly brings.
The sixteen playoff positions represent a chance to win Lord Stanley's Cup. The pressure to win is sometimes unbearable. Favorites don't meet expectations, and underdogs exceed them. Playoff hockey is exciting, physical, and fast paced; and we get to see the players lay it all on the line for a chance at immortality.
I would like to preface that this piece is purely my opinion, and is entirely up for debate.
So here are my predictions for the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Enjoy!
After squeaking into the playoffs, there is no doubt the Rangers are counting their blessings and planning on embracing the opportunity they almost missed out on.
Unfortunately for New York, the struggles that plagued the Washington Capitals at the beginning of the season are old news, and the team has implemented and adopted Bruce Boudreau's new system. Look for the Washington Capitals to be a team with something to prove, especially star player Alex Ovechkin.
Prediction: Washington in six
Last year's finalists finished off their last ten games of the season with a record of 3-4-3, and ultimately losing out on top spot in the East.
Buffalo on the other hand has been on a roll, and was in the midst of a heated playoff race down the stretch, and went 8-1-1. They have also been playing with a playoff mentality for the last month.
While regular season play isn't always indicative of playoff performance, this smells like an upset.
Prediction: Buffalo in six
This matchup has been brewing all season long. This Original Six rivalry has seen it's fair share of battles. The brawls and the Max Pacioretty incident have both been well documented this season. Look for the rivalry between these two teams to be in full force.
This playoff series will ultimately come down to goaltending. Both team's starting goaltenders have been two of the best all season long, but Carey Price's playoff record of 0-8 is definitely cause for concern in Montréal.
This one looks like it could go the distance.
Prediction: Boston in seven
Pittsburgh will be playing without the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Matt Cooke, but it isn't like that haven't been playing without the majority of their top players all season long. This is a testament to the players and leadership of coach Dan Bylsma.
With Tampa making their first playoff appearance since bottoming out in 2008, it is a good sign of things to come for this club. In order to compete with Pittsburgh, sniper Steven Stamkos and playmaker Martin St. Louis will both be heavily depended upon to produce on a consistent basis.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in five
While some may be weary of the Vancouver Canucks playing the rival Blackhawks in the first round because of their recent history in the playoffs, I think the Canucks players are looking forward to finally beating out the Chicago Blackhawks as part of a deep postseason run.
The Vancouver Canucks aren't just the Presidents Trophy winners, they are a team with something to prove, especially to the Chicago Blackhawks.
This will be a hard fought battle that goes down to the line.
Prediction: Vancouver in seven
San Jose is another team with high expectations. Beating out the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Semi-Final last year was an accomplishment, but eventually losing out to the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the next round was not the plan. If this team doesn't make the Stanley Cup final, many will again classify this season as falling below expectations.
Los Angeles loss of Anze Kopitar is a huge blow to this teams playoff chances, but don't expect this team to bow down easily. Look for Dustin Brown to lead by example and play some good physical playoff hockey.
Prediction: San Jose in five
This year's playoffs is different than most years for the Detroit Red Wings, as they usually have to bear the weight of finishing atop the standings in the West. Look for Detroit's veteran presence to thrive under the relaxed pressure and produce during these playoffs.
Phoenix will again rely on the quality goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov in order to battle through a tough, playoff seasoned, veteran riddled Detroit Red Wings team.
Prediction: Detroit in six
Anaheim finished off the season playing inspired hockey, with leaders Corey Perry and captain Ryan Getzlaf taking charge. The question surrounding this team is goaltending. While Ray Emery and Dan Ellis have filled in admirably, Jonas Hiller battled with vertigo and while he has returned to the line up, he was less than impressive in net. Can this goaltending trio backstop the Ducks into the next round?
Nashville is the perennial underdog, who quietly go about their business and win hockey games. Barry Trotz has led this small market to the playoffs eight of the twelve seasons he has been behind the bench. This team can't be underestimated.
Prediction: Nashville in six
After coming off a big upset against Philadelphia, look for Buffalo to be feeling good about themselves. While Washington has more fire power, we will see if the young goaltending tandem of Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov will be able to out battle Buffalo's Ryan Miller in net.
Here is where we will be able to see if the new system Bruce Boudreau implemented this season prepared the Capitals for a deep postseason run.
Prediction: Washington in six
This series will be a hard fought battle, and a huge question mark is whether or not Sidney Crosby will make his way into the line up. It will also indicate how well Pittsburgh fairs against the big Boston Bruins.
There is a lot of size and skill on the Bruins, who are built for a deep playoff run; and at this point, especially if Crosby gets shut down for the season, it looks like the Penguins may be running on fumes at this point. Will Pittsburgh's plague of injuries ultimately force them out of the playoff picture?
Prediction: Boston in seven
The result of this series is highly dependent on Nashville's ability to maintain their tight checking system and keep Vancouver's Sedin twins offensive capability in check, while also producing at the same rate as the Canucks high powered offense.
There is no doubt that if Vancouver gets by Chicago in the first round, they will have momentum, and they will need to harness it against Nashville.
But if Vancouver makes the mistake of underestimating their opponent, and look at the Predators simply as a stepping stone to the final, they are in for a rude awakening.
Prediction: Vancouver in five
A rematch of last year's Western Conference Semi-Final is sure to showcase some high powered offense, tenacity along the boards and in the corners, and some hard fought wins. There is no doubt Detroit remembers the early exit they suffered last year at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, so expect them to come out flying.
Again, I think this series comes down to the goaltenders, and their ability to steal a game. Jimmy Howard's playoff inexperience is a concern, as well as Detroit's lack of depth at the goaltender position.
San Jose on the other hand has 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Antti Niemi between the pipes, who has been incredible of late and is pretty familiar to this song and dance.
Prediction: San Jose in seven
Zdeno Chara's big bodied presence on the blue line is an important part of Boston's success, and it will be no different in this series where I'm sure we will witness Chara going head to head against Russian phenom Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
It will be interesting to see if Alex Ovechkin reincorporates his goal scoring mentality in the playoffs, burning opposing defenders with his speed, and burdening opposing goaltenders with having to stop his unbelievably quick and accurate shot.
Tim Thomas will be a headliner in this series, as he is looking for his first Stanley Cup. He will have some sensational nights, demonstrating his determination to be a champion.
Prediction: Boston in six
This series features the top teams from the Western Conference. Both teams have high expectations of making the Stanley Cup Final. Both teams have quality systems that highlight their best players. Both teams have high quality goaltending.
But the Vancouver Canucks back end appears to be a much more solid, quality defensive group, than that of the San Jose Sharks. The likes of Doug Murray and Ian White may not be able to handle the high powered offense the Canucks bring night in and night out.
Prediction: Vancouver in five
This championship series has a little battle of North America flavor to it.
If Vancouver wins, it will be the first time the Cup has returned to Canada since Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens brought it home in '93. If Boston wins, the cup goes home with an Original Six team for the third time in four years.
This series would showcase amazing skill, impressive two-way play, grit, and outstanding goaltending. Another interesting fact is that the best players on both clubs (Sedins, Kesler, Luongo, Chara, Lucic, and Thomas) all don't have Stanley Cup rings; and they will do anything to get them.
It just can't get any better than that.
Prediction: Vancouver in six, and the 2011 Stanley Cup Champions!