The 2010-11 NHL playoffs are set to begin Wednesday night with the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers battling it out in Game 1 of their seven-game series.
Also going toe-to-toe Wednesday Night will be the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference, along with the Vancouver Canucks against the Chicago Blackhawks and lastly the Anaheim Ducks against the Nashville Predators.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs hold some special significance to a few elderly statesman of the NHL as veterans Nicklas Lidstrom and Teemu Selanne will try win one last Stanley Cup before they call it a career.
The injury situation of many teams may end up winning them a series or two. Will Sidney Crosby return at all during the playoffs? Will Chris Pronger return to guide the Flyers past the Sabres and onward? Will Jonas Hiller overcome his battle with vertigo and steady the Ducks to a Round 1 victory over Shea Weber and the upstart Nashville Predators?
Those questions among many will begin to get answered as the 2010-11 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin tomorrow night.
The Eastern Conference
Washington Capitals vs New York Rangers
Prediction: Capitals in six.
On paper, an outsider would certainly side with the Capitals on this one. They're relatively healthy, and with the possibility of regaining Mike Green and Dennis Wideman to help strengthen their defensive core, the Capitals will be a tough team to beat.
The Rangers played the Capitals tough throughout the year, but this time they are without their spark-plug Ryan Callahan, who is lost to injury.
For the Rangers to pull off the upset, they will have to lean heavily on all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist. However, after Marian Gaborik, the goal scoring consistency falls off dramatically, as Brandon Dubinsky and rookie Derek Stepan are the other two healthy leading scorers on the Rangers. So unless the Rangers win 2-1 every night, don't count on seeing them in the second round.
Philadelphia Flyers vs Buffalo Sabres
Prediction: Sabres in seven.
This series, much like the Capitals vs Rangers, is a series that will heavily be played out with the guys between the pipes.
The Sabres hold a considerable advantage in goal over the Flyers as Ryan Miller is arguably one of the best goalies in the league. Meanwhile, Sergei Bobrovsky is one of the worst goalies—at least of the playoff teams that remain.
The last part of the season saw the Flyers struggle, while the Sabres enter the series on a high. Even better news for the Sabres is that Derek Roy is skating again, and there's talk about Roy possibly being available after round one.
With or without Roy, I still feel the gap in goal is far too great and Miller will steal the Sabres this series. If Roy returns after that, it wouldn't surprise me to see them advance even further than one round.
Boston Bruins vs Montreal Canadiens
Prediction: Bruins in Six
The Bruins vs Canadiens is easily my favorite matchup of the first round. So many storylines and so much intrigue are involved in this series.
The Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty is still fresh on many players' and fans' minds in Montreal and retribution could still be a thought.
Aside from a few cheap shots, this series promises to be a classic between these two bitter Original Six rivals, as they continue their storied rivalry in this seven-game series.
Look for this series to be a battle between two likely Vezina Trophy finalists in Carey Price and Tim Thomas, who apparently is like a fine wine and only gets better with age.
The Canadiens should win a game or two in this series thanks to Price, but in the end, the Bruins should handle a depleted Montreal blueline, who will be without Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges. The Canadiens also struggle to score as their second leading scorer, James Wisniewski, only played 43 games with the club but amassed 45 points between Montreal and Long Island in 75 games.
Unless the Canadiens can get some scoring from players like Tomas Plekanec, Michael Cammalleri, Andrei Kostitsyn, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, expect the Bruins to take this one.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Tampa Bay Lightning
Prediction: Lightning in seven.
This series on paper will likely be the highest scoring series of all the four Eastern Conference series as there really is no game changing goaltender to steal a series. Granted both Marc Andre Fleury and Dwayne Roloson are good goaltenders in their own right, they don't really strike fear in me like goalies of Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo or Carey Price do.
The biggest question mark surrounding this matchup will be the health of Penguins captain and team MVP Sidney Crosby. Crosby, who is still recovering from a concussion he sustained after hits from then Capitals center David Steckel and Lightning defender Victor Hedman on successive nights in early January.
If Crosby returns in time, this series will probably be the most watched of all eight series, as Crosby returns and faces Steven Stamkos—two of the best players in the NHL today.
This series will probably come down to who scores more, and with that said, look for the Penguins to score less, due to not having their two best players in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Vancouver Canucks vs Chicago Blackhawks
Prediction: Canucks in seven.
The Canucks and Blackhawks will renew their rivalry again, but this time around the Canucks are the Presidents' Trophy winner and the Blackhawks, the reigning 2010 Stanley Cup champions, were the surprise last team to secure a playoff berth.
The Blackhawks will certainly give the Canucks a run for their money, but right now the Canucks get the edge due to the Roberto Luongo factor. The goaltending a team gets usually gets in a series, good or bad, always has an impact on the outcome of the series.
Some odd times bad goaltending will be bailed out by a great offence, but usually, it's the goaltending that will win you championships.
Here I take Luongo over the less battle-tested Corey Crawford; however, you can argue that the 'Hawks won the cup last year with Niemi backstopping them to victory. But I'm not as confident in Crawford as others, and the Canuck killer Dustin Byfuglien is no longer with the Blackhawks, so they are down one integral part of the team from last year.
San Jose Sharks vs Los Angeles Kings
Prediction: Sharks in five.
The Sharks are coming into the start of the playoffs on quite a hot streak, having gone 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. Meanwhile, the Kings head into the playoffs down two big parts to their offence.
Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, the two leading scorers the Kings have, are not available this series due to injuries.
With both out, the advantage here goes to the Sharks for obvious reasons.
The Sharks, in years past under the guidance of one Ron Wilson, were deemed playoff chokers. This time around, I see the Sharks making a big push in the playoffs.
Patrick Marleau is playing the best hockey of his career, and the likes of Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton had down years this year, so I believe they will be out to prove their critics wrong and really do something positive for the Sharks.
Goaltending by Antti Niemi this year instead of Evgeni Nabokov could be the wild card here. Niemi, unlike Nabokov, has won a Stanley Cup, and may just have what it takes to carry the Sharks on his back—if they need some help.
Detroit Red Wings vs Phoenix Coyotes
Prediction: Wings in six.
The Red Wings head into the playoffs a little banged up as Henrik Zetterberg will miss Game 1 of the playoffs. With Zetterberg out, the club will lean heavily on Johan Franzen and Pavel Datsyuk, along with a whole slew of other veterans to get them through Ggame 1.
The Coyotes, who are lead by Shane Doan, are a hard team to predict. On paper their roster doesn't scare the pants off anyone, but their offence by committee gets the job done. Backstopped by Ilya Bryzgalov, the Coyotes are always in games, and playing under Dave Tippett also helps them out greatly here.
But in the end, Detroit's veteran leadership, experience, skill and home ice advantage allows them to take the series. Detroit has a grand total of 30 Stanley Cup rings on their team. The Coyotes, you may ask? A grand total of two, won by Ray Whitney with Carolina and Ilya Bryzgalov with Anaheim.
Anaheim Ducks vs Nashville Predators
Prediction: Ducks in seven.
This series is probably the hardest to predict. The Predators and Ducks finished the year with the exact same point totals as each other, and also have two of the better head coaches in the game today in Randy Carlyle and Barry Trotz, respectively.
The Ducks feature a high-powered offence, along with probably the best five-man power play unit in the NHL at the moment. They will be a hard team to contain.
The Predators may just be that team to contain them, though. Only trailing Vancouver in goals against for Western Conference playoff teams, the Predators are a stingy defensive club who give other squads fits night in and night out. Finnish goalie Pekka Rinne is one of the more underrated goalies in the NHL who never seems to get credit either, so don't sleep on the Predators.
In Anaheim, they are looking forward to the eventual return of Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller from a bout with vertigo. Hiller, one of the game's best young goalies today, hasn't played consecutive games in what seems like forever, so getting him back to 100 percent is of utmost importance to them.
Right now, the Ducks have more experience and more winning pedigree as the Ducks have six players who won a Cup with them a few years ago. Meanwhile, the Predators don't have a single player that has won a Stanley Cup.
Look for the experience here to win out.
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