The 2010 Stanley Cup Champions
In a time-honoured tradition, I've reviewed the 16 playoff teams, considered different scenarios and made predictions from the first round all the way through to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Well, my playoff pool of course.
These are my predictions for each round of the 2011 NHL Playoffs. Additionally, I've highlighted key matchups in each series, as well as highlighting specific series as being the ones to watch in the early rounds, where even with a DVR there is too much hockey to handle unless you are on vacation.
It may not unfold exactly as I predict, but I'm confident of the teams I picked to come out of the Eastern and Western conferences.
Of course, if you disagree (and I'm sure many will), feel free to post your brackets in the comments.
*Just a reminder on the playoff format. Best of seven series in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, and after each round the remaining teams are seeded again based on their regular season standings.
Bruins vs Canadiens should be the most entertaining Eastern series
Washington Capitals (1) vs New York Rangers (8)
Key Matchup: Alexander Ovechkin (Capitals) vs. Henrik Lundqvist (Rangers)
In a battle between a Vezina Trophy calibre goalie and the best individual talent in the NHL, who wins?
Capitals in five games. They are too deep offensively to lose to the Rangers, unless Lundqvist can pitch three or four shutouts.
Philadelphia Flyers (2) vs Buffalo Sabres (7)
Key Matchup: Ryan Miller (Sabres) vs Sergei Bobrovsky, Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton (Flyers)
Miller is a great goalie, but is he that much better than the trio of 1A goalies that the Flyers have assembled in hockey's version of a bullpen?
Prediction: Flyers in five games
Miller gives the Sabres an edge in goal, but everywhere outside the crease, the Flyers are stronger and deeper.
Boston Bruins (3) vs Montreal Canadiens (6) *** Series to Watch ***
Key Matchup: Carey Price (Canadiens) vs Tim Thomas (Bruins).
Price needs to stand on his head and steal games like Jaroslav Halak did last year when the Canadiens upset the Capitals and Penguins. But can he do it going up against the likely Vezina winner who set a modern-day record for save percentage this season?
Prediction: Bruins in seven games
This original six matchup will be a hard fought physical series after all the injuries and grudge matches earlier this year. But in the end, the Canadiens are too small to stand up to the big, bad Bruins in what should prove to be the most entertaining series in the East during the first round.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs Tampa Bay Lightning (5)
Key Matchup: Marc-Andre Fleury (Penguins) vs Dwayne Roloson (Lightning).
Fleury has been good this year, holding his team in games despite their lack of firepower with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby injured. Roloson has been inconsistent in his career, but he has taken the Wild and Oilers on playoff runs before when he gets hot. Can Roloson get on a hot streak and outduel Fleury?
Prediction: Lightning in six games
This series changes drastically if Crosby does suit up for Game 1. But if he doesn't, the Lightning have enough firepower to bury the Penguins, even if Roloson plays merely average. Due to injuries, this just isn't the year for the Penguins.
Washington Capitals (1) vs Tampa Bay Lightning (5) *** Series to Watch ***
Key Matchup: Alexander Ovechkin (Capitals) vs Steven Stamkos (Lightning)
Two of the best goal scorers in the NHL, each surrounded by a supporting cast of other offensive stars, will try to one up each other with highlight reel goals.
Prediction: Lightning in seven games.
Both teams have excellent firepower, and this is one of the few series in the East where there is not a Vezina or Norris trophy candidate on the ice. Expect this to be a high-scoring affair, but I'll give the decision to the Lightning, as their core players have won championships at all levels (Stanley Cup, World Juniors, Olympics) where as the Russian flavor of the Capitals is distinctly lacking in that category.
Philadelphia Flyers (2) vs Boston Bruins (3)
Key Matchup: Chris Pronger (Flyers) vs Zdeno Chara (Bruins)
Both are Norris trophy calibre defencemen, both are physical titans who tower over everyone else on the ice, and both have reputations for being dirty if that is what it takes to win.
Prediction: Bruins in six games
Both teams are stacked with big, tough, skilled forwards cast in the prototypical playoff mold, and their defence corps are led by the previously mentioned Pronger and Chara. But in goal, Tim Thomas wins out over the Flyers bullpen approach.
Boston Bruins (3) vs Tampa Bay Lightning (5)
Key Matchup: Tim Thomas (Bruins) vs Steven Stamkos (Lightning)
Vezina Trophy goaltending vs Rocket Richard Trophy winning goal scoring.
Prediction: Bruins in six games. Tampa Bay's Cinderella run ends here, as they face a Bruins team that is too big, and too tough to allow the Lightning to work their offensive magic on Thomas.
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs Chicago Blackhawks (8) *** Series to Watch ***
Key Matchup: Henrik Sedin (Canucks) vs Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks)
Both players are the first line center, the engine that drives the offense on the power play, and also the captain for their respective teams.
Prediction: Canucks in six games
The Blackhawks got worse, and the Canucks got better, after their meetings in the previous two playoffs, both Blackhawks wins. This series should be the most entertaining series in the West during the first round, as both teams play a highly skilled game, and also happen to hate each other.
San Jose Sharks (2) vs LA Kings (7)
Key Matchup: Dany Heatley (Sharks) vs Ryan Smyth (Kings)
Both wingers are Team Canada veterans, and while Heatley is more valuable during the regular season, Smyth finds another gear in big games, and Heatley starts thinking about golf.
Prediction: Kings in six games
The young Kings got a taste of the playoffs last year, and this year they don't want to go home early. They added playoff experience in Dustin Penner and Willie Mitchell as well. Expect the Battle for California to get nasty, and when the games get nasty, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Heatley tend to fade rather than pushing back.
Detroit Red Wings (3) vs Phoenix Coyotes (6)
Key Matchup: Thomas Holmstrom (Red Wings) vs Ilya Bryzgalov (Coyotes)
The Coyotes need Bryzgalov to be airtight to win, and who better to get him off his game than the best crease crasher in the NHL?
Prediction: Red Wings in six games
The Coyotes will put up a spirited fight, but they just don't have the firepower to win a playoff series unless Bryzgalov can steal multiple games, and that isn't going to happen with Detroit's stable of crease crashers.
Anaheim Ducks (4) vs Nashville Predators (5)
Key Matchup: Corey Perry (Ducks) vs Shea Weber (Predators)
Can Weber shutdown his Olympic teammate?
Prediction: Ducks in five games
The Predators have the coaching, defence and goaltending to win in the playoffs, but they still don't have the firepower. Combine that with the Ducks having the best line in hockey (Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan) and also the ageless Finnish Flash (Teemu Selanne) and this isn't the Predators year.
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs LA Kings (7)
Key Matchup: Daniel Sedin (Canucks) vs Willie Mitchell (Kings)
Can Mitchell, the former Canuck turned King, shut down the Art Ross winner, after four years of practicing with him?
Prediction: Canucks in five games
Missing two of their top scorers (Williams, Kopitar) to injury before the playoffs even begin, the Kings simply don't have the horses to beat the Canucks. In a repeat of the 2010 playoffs, the Canucks dispatch the Kings.
Detroit Red Wings (3) vs Anaheim Ducks (4) *** Series to Watch ***
Key Matchup: Nicklas Lidstrom (Red Wings) vs Corey Perry (Ducks)
After being a minus player for the first time in his illustrious career, can Lidstrom elevate his play to shut down the best player in the NHL?
Prediction: Ducks in seven games
I don't like to bet against Detroit in the playoffs, but their veterans are starting to show their age, and they were already beaten up and injured before the playoff start. While they don't have quite the championship pedigree of the Red Wings, plenty of players on the Ducks have Olympic medals and Stanley Cup rings of their own, so they know how to win big games too. In the end, the bigger, faster and younger Ducks take down the Red Wings.
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs Anaheim Ducks (4)
Key Matchup: Ryan Kesler (Canucks) vs Corey Perry (Ducks). After Weber and Lidstrom failed to contain Perry, can Ryan Kesler (who should win this year's Selke trophy) slow him down?
Prediction: Canucks in seven games. In a hard fought physical series, three of the top five goal scorers in the NHL (Daniel Sedin and Kesler with 41 each, Perry with 50) lead their teams in a run-and-gun battle. Expect high-scoring games, but in the end, the Canucks' depth and better goaltending is the difference.
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs Boston Bruins (3)
Key Matchup: Roberto Luongo (Canucks) vs Milan Lucic (Bruins)
Can the 6'4" 220-pound Lucic do his best Dustin Byfuglien impression to get Luongo off his game?
Prediction: Bruins in seven games
The Bruins are bigger, more physical, and also have an easier path out of the Eastern Conference.
While the Canucks defence is deep, they always seem to get more than their share of injuries. Combine that with the imposing Bruins forwards led by Vancouver native (and former Vancouver Giant) Milan Lucic, and Roberto Luongo won't have a chance to see the shots being thrown at him.
The Canucks won't be able to overwhelm the Bruins offensively either. Already battered after three playoff rounds, especially the conference finals vs. the still mighty Anaheim Ducks, the Canucks will fall to the Bruins.