(1) Washington Capitals Vs. (8) New York Rangers:
Despite a very successful regular season in which the New York Rangers won three of four games against the Washington Capitals, it is hard to believe that the Caps will be upset in the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
The Caps are a very different team from last season, choosing to concentrate on an all-round game, which includes an emphasis on defense and balanced scoring.
The Caps won 16 of their final 20 games this season. Needless to say, it’s tough to get any hotter than that down the stretch, which should serve the Caps well in the playoffs.
Despite not being known as an offensive juggernaut, the Rangers actually scored more goals than the Caps this season (233-224). The Capitals gave up one less goal on the season, but nobody is going to be calling Washington’s goaltending a position of strength over the Rangers Henrik Lundqvist.
Overall, the Rangers had a better goals for/goals against differential (+35 to +27), but given the fact that the Capitals finished 14 points ahead of the Rangers in the standings it’s tough to put much value in those facts.
The Rangers also own two blowout wins over the Capitals, including 6-0 and 7-0 wins. Strange that the Rangers, who have the weaker offense on paper, were able to dispose of the Capitals so easily on those two occasions, which should give a lot of prognosticators some food for thought.
For the Capitals to be successful, they must continue to play a tight game, focusing on good defense and taking advantage of their power play opportunities.
One has to believe that Alexander Ovechkin will be hungry to prove his critics wrong. If he can lead his team to the Stanley Cup Finals (even without Sidney Crosby in the Pens' lineup), it would be a huge accomplishment....but Ovechkin will have to lead the Caps past the Rangers first.
A game one victory would go a long way in getting into the fragile heads of the Caps. Should the Rangers gain home ice advantage, they may have a shot at beating the Caps, and with Lundqvist in the net, anything is possible.
Watch out for Rangers forward Sean Avery to make a few headlines…
Prediction: Take the Capitals in six games.
(2) Philadelphia Flyers Vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres:
The Flyers were atop of the Eastern Conference standings for a good portion of the season, but they stumbled down the stretch, which caused them to fall to second in the East.
On the other hand, the Buffalo Sabres went 8-1-1 down the stretch and have been playing playoff hockey for more than a month now.
Ryan Miller looks confident and, more importantly, appears to be healthy.
In the Flyers net, it appears as if rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky will get the nod between the pipes, but don’t be surprised if veteran goaltender Brian Boucher gets a shot should the young Russian stumble.
Another area of concern for the Flyers is their power play, which has been off on more nights than not. For the most part, the playoffs is all about goaltending and special teams. Should the Flyers stumble on the power play, they may be in for a long series.
The Flyers have one of the more well-rounded scoring attacks, featuring the likes of Mike Richards, Ville Leino, Jeff Carter, Kris Versteeg, Danny Briere, Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk.
It is that depth that should be enough to get the Orange and Black past the Sabres, even if Miller is standing on his head.
Some say the Flyers lost their way; I say Philly have been resting for a long playoff run. The Flyers proved a couple of things last season. First, never underestimate this team. Second, they never do anything the easy way, which should see them participating in their fair share of six and seven game series.
Prediction: Take the Flyers in six games.
(3) Boston Bruins Vs. (6) Montreal Canadiens
In one of the most anticipated playoff battles, the big-bad-Boston Bruins will take on the wounded Montreal Canadiens.
No need to re-hash the history between these two clubs, no need to re-hash the Zdeno Chara incident; these two clubs hate each other with a passion!
Passion aside, if the Canadiens let their emotions get the better of them, this series will be over in four games.
The Bruins are too tough and unrelenting for the Canadiens to handle. If the Canadiens are to be successful, they will have to rely on their finesse and power play to get them through to the next round.
David Krejci and Milan Lucic should lead the Bruins in the scoring department, while Zdeno Chara should have a field day throwing Montreal’s undersized forwards out of the crease.
Montreal goaltender Carey Price has been lights-out all season long, but he is yet to prove he can handle the pressures of the playoffs…now is his time.
In the other net, Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas has had a Vezina Trophy worthy season, emerging with a goals against average of two goals per game.
The Bruins look to have the advantage up front, where they are more skilled, bigger and a lot healthier than the Habs are.
Last year's playoff hero Mike Cammalleri will have to be equally effective this time around, while P.K. Subban will be asked to continue to step up in the absence of Montreal defenders Josh Georges and Andrei Markov, both of whom are not expected back for the playoffs.
The Canadiens went 4-2 against the Bruins this season, but after the last game against these two clubs, a 7-0 drubbing of the Habs, it’s tough to put much solace into the regular season series.
Prediction: Take the Bruins in five games.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning
In what might just end up being the surprise series of the first round, the Pittsburgh Penguins are set to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Sure, the Pens will likely be without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but given the way they have come together as a team, both in spirit and defensively, the Pens should be able to handle the streaky Lightning.
That said, any lineup that features the likes of Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis has a chance to beat any team on any given night.
As deep as both of these teams are up front, look for this series to become a heated goaltenders dual between the Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury and the Lightning’s Dwayne Roloson.
In the end, it will likely be the special teams of both teams (for better or worse) that will make the biggest difference. For the record: The Lighting own the sixth best power play and the eighth ranked penalty kill, while the Penguins own the 25th ranked power play (always shocks me to see the Pens' power play ranked so poorly) and the top-ranked penalty kill.
Bottom line: The team that stays out of the box the most probably wins this series.
Prediction: Take the Penguins to win a close series in seven games. (I’ll predict three overtime games)
***Western Conference Playoff Bracket coming soon!
Until next time,