With the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs about to begin on Wednesday, the time has come to make some predictions. Most of the matchups will be very tight, but there are a couple that will be easy to make picks on.
Time for the real predictions.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) New York Rangers
Odds: WAS: 11/2; NYR 35/1
Based on the past few years, it would be easy to predict that the Caps are going to get knocked out in the first round based on prior playoff disappointment. In 2011 however, it is going to be a different story for the franchise. Despite a poor month of December where the team went on an eight-game slide and all seemed to be lost, the Capitals came back with a strong second half of the season, finished off by a strong season-ending surge to the top of the standings. The Capitals also rested star and big-minute player Alexander Ovechkin for the last couple weeks in the season so that he would be ready for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Capitals opponents, the New York Rangers, practically stumbled into the playoffs going a measly 4-3 in the last seven games of the season. The Rangers practically played their way out of the playoffs. In addition to their poor performances of late, the Rangers will be without Ryan Callahan and Alexander Frolov for the entirety of the playoffs due to injuries.
Will the Capitals See Another First Round Exit?
The Caps are just a far superior team overall, unless the Rangers defence can shut down the Capitals top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Knuble. The high-flying Capitals offense seems poised to make easy work of the Rangers in this first-round matchup.
Capitals Win: 4-1 (five games)
(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres
Odds: PHI: 8/1; BUF: 28/1
Time for the first upset prediction. Although the Flyers proved last year that great goaltending is not required to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, you do need some consistent form of goaltending and that is something that the Flyers are definitely lacking heading into the 2011 NHL playoffs. Sergei Bobrovsky began the year as the surprise player in the NHL, but his inexperience and previous amount of games played factored into his demise in the later end of the season.
Previously the most games Bobrovsky had played on a professional level was 35 games, well less than the amount he was required to play this season. Due to the fact that Bobrovsky has clearly been overworked, the Flyers have dropped from first overall to second in the matter of a month. In addition to the lack of goaltending consistency, the Flyers' top defenceman Chris Pronger has been out with a hand injury for the past two months and is questionable going into Game 1 versus the Sabres.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres made the jump from the 10th spot in the East over the past couple of weeks to clinch the seventh spot with just one game left in the season. Any team with that much momentum coming into the playoffs already has a better shot at pulling off the win in the series. The Sabres are playing with too much confidence to be a one-and-done team at this point. Although goalie Ryan Miller hasn't had as stellar a season as he did last year (understand his fatigue from Olympics and the season prior) he is still having a good year. The edge for this series clearly is goaltending and that goes to the Sabres.
Expect this series to be a tight one.
Sabres Win: 4-3 (seven games)
(3) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Montreal Canadiens
Odds: BOS: 9/1; MTL: 30/1
Time for another meeting between two Original Six rivals—the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens. This is the 33rd meeting between the two historic franchises in the postseason where Montreal has won 24 of the meetings. History aside, this is a tough matchup to predict. The Canadiens and Bruins went back and forth atop the Northeast Division standings with the Bruins ultimately coming out on top by seven points.
If the Bruins are able to be physical while staying out of trouble they will be able to win the series, but they have a tendency as of late to be irresponsibly physical, and it has cost them games. This is especially dangerous as the Habs finished the season with the league's seventh-best power play with them converting on 19.7 percent of their chances.
With the return of Jaroslav Spacek to the Canadiens defensive group, the Habs once again have depth at the back end, which will be key as to which team wins the series. Defensive responsibility and discipline are the main factors in the series.
The production of Mike Camalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez is another key in this series. If they do not perform against a league-best two-goals-against goalie in Tim Thomas, they will have no hope in the series.
Expect it to go down to the wire, with Boston coming out as the victor.
Bruins Win: 4-3 (seven games)
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning
Odds: PIT: 10/1; TBL 20/1
This is probably both the hardest matchup to predict, but also the easiest. If Crosby plays the Pens win; if Crosby does not play the Lightning win—it is that simple. At this point it does not look as though Crosby will be taking the ice anytime soon and without him and Malkin in their lineup, don't expect a potent offence to take the ice night in and night out. Without these two key members of the team, the Lightning's high-powered offence can shine.
Although the Penguins defence is solid and they have an excellent goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, this is Tampa's year to do something. With Martin St. Louis finishing second in league scoring, Steven Stamkos in second in goals and veteran Vincent Lecavalier a consistent point producer, the Lightning will be hard to stop. Unless their goaltending fails them, the Lightning will pull this one out.
Lightning Win: 4-3 (seven games)
Western Conference Quarterfinals
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Chicago Blackhawks
Odds: VAN: 3/1; CHI 25/1
For the third consecutive year the Canucks and Blackhawks meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This year is much different than the past two, however. The Canucks seem to have exercised their demons when the Blackhawks both traded and lost free agents Dustin Byfuglien and Chris Versteeg among others in the 2010 offseason. The 'Hawks also let star playoff goaltender Antti Niemi go to the Sharks.
All in all the Blackhawks of 2010-11 are not the same team as they were one year ago. They made it into the playoffs on a loss. Obviously, the Blackhawks are still a strong team with Toews, Kane, Hossa, Seabrook and others in their lineup, but they are not as strong as previous years. They succeeded in their window, which has seemingly closed at this point.
Special teams are huge in the playoffs, and the Canucks are the No. 1 team in the league on the power play and No. 2 on the penalty kill. This alone can make or break a series.
Clearly the Canucks are a far superior team than the 2011 Blackhawks, and it's no secret the 'Hawks aren't the same team as the one that won the Cup last year.
Canucks Win: 4-2 (six games)
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Los Angeles Kings
Odds: SJ: 15/2; LAK: 28/1
This is another easy series. The Sharks have dominated in the second half of the season and the Kings have been average since their tear in the first half of the season. With the key injury to Anze Kopitar, the Kings have lost their top offensive producer and most dangerous player. In addition to this, the Kings franchise player Drew Doughty has extremely underwhelmed in his performance this year.
The Sharks are always a danger and now that they have last year's Stanley Cup-winning goaltender in Antti Niemi the task is made easier. Calder Trophy candidate Logan Couture simply complements the offensive powerhouse veteran lineup of the Sharks even more.
This won't be close.
Sharks Win: 4-1 (five games)
(3) Detroit Red Wings vs. (6) Phoenix Coyotes
Odds: DET: 10/1; PHX: 30/1
We have another repeat matchup in 2011. The Coyotes and the Wings met as the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds respectively in 2010. Detroit went on to win the high-scoring series in seven games. You can expect more of the same this year. That is to say if Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg are in the lineup and 100 percent healthy. If they cannot compete, this series very well could sway to the Coyotes.
The Coyotes do have depth and get contributions from all of their players, but the Detroit Red Wings dynasty can count on every player to contribute at both ends of the ice, even down to their fourth line. The Red Wings take this series based on veteran experience and what is probably the deepest lineup in the NHL.
Red Wings Win: 4-3 (seven games)
(4) Anaheim Ducks vs. (5) Nashville Predators
Odds: ANA: 20/1; NAS: 30/1
This may well be the most difficult series to predict in this the first round of the 2011 NHL playoffs. They are practically the same team with the exception of Corey Perry and Pekka Rinne. These are the players that can steal a game in the playoffs. Perry can flat out score, and do so in bunches, whereas Rinne is second in save percentage, and third in GAA in the NHL and has solidified a spot as one of the elite goaltenders in the league.
Now even though the Preds have a great goaltender and solid back end led by Shea Weber, the Ducks have veterans Saku Koivu and the Finnish Flash Teemu Selanne, as well as 2010 Olympic gold medalist Ryan Getzlaf and silver medalist Bobby Ryan in their lineup. Despite all of these stars, the Ducks will be starting the series with third-string goaltender Dan Ellis. This could be their downfall, but the offensive prowess of the Ducks stars should bail him out.
Ducks Win: 4-2 (six games)
The 2011 NHL playoff quarterfinals are shaping up to be a very entertaining first round, and could quite possibly be the most entertaining first round we've seen since the pre-lockout era. Several series look to be very tight and high paced, just what the NHL wants to see. Look for some long overtimes and some high-scoring affairs. Overall, it's going to be one hell of a first round.