2011 NHL Playoffs: Daniel Friedman's First Round Predictions
Finally, it's playoff time in the National Hockey League.
All eight first round match-ups have been set and the 16 teams involved are ready to go.
There's no sure way to predict which squad's players will grow the "scruffiest" playoff beards, but we can at least break down the Eastern and Western Conference quarterfinals.
With that, it's time to let the speculation begin.
Eastern Conference: (1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) New York Rangers
Prediction: Washington Capitals win series in 5.
The Caps may have choked in recent years, but this team is a vastly improved edition of it's predecessors.
Why, you ask? Because the Capitals have taken defense, formerly their biggest weakness, and turned it into one of their strengths.
If you're picking Washington to lose because of the drop in their offensive production, you need to take a closer look at some of the team's other statistics.
For example, in 2009-10, the Caps surrendered 227 goals against. This season? 191, a differential of 36 tallies.
Likewise, their overall plus/minus was 25 a season ago. Alexander Ovechkin and Co. have improved on that mark, finishing 2010-11 with a plus-74 rating.
I also wouldn't read too much into the fact that their offense isn't scoring as many goals as we've come to expect from them. The bottom line is, this is still a talented team and in the playoffs, it's not always the highest-scoring bunch that comes out on top.
But if you're concerned that Washington won't be able to respond on the scoreboard, don't be.
Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, Mike Green (will be returning in this series), John Carlson, Jason Arnott, and Mike Knuble can all score goals and create offense, as can other depth players.
As far as the New York Rangers are concerned, I'm not picking them to win, simply because they haven't given me a reason to believe they can.
They were only able to finish in the top-eight because they all received gift cards, courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning and, were relatively inconsistent for the majority of the season.
While the Blueshirts may have had a few clutch victories, they had just as many, if not more, disappointing losses during that final stretch.
Many will point to the fact that New York scored more goals than Washington this year. Mazel Tov, so did six other non-playoff teams (Islanders, Stars, Blues, Avalanche, Flames, Hurricanes).
I'll take Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin over the likes of Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinksy and Derek Stepan any day.
There is one area in which the Rangers are absolutely stronger than the Caps, and that's in between the pipes. Henrik Lundqvist had himself a Vezina-worthy campaign in 2010-2011, and he is the single reason why New York is even in the postseason right now.
If the Rangers are to win this series, he's going to have to turn in a Roy-esque performance.
They do have a solid blueline, led by Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, but, once again, I see your pair and raise you Green and Carlson.
I just don't think they have enough weapons to overcome the challenge they're facing, especially without Ryan Callahan in the lineup, who was their best all-around player this season, no doubt about it.
Eastern Conference: (2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres
Prediction: Philadelphia Flyers win series in 6.
The Flyers are one of the deepest teams in the NHL and are undoubtedly a favorite to come out of the East.
The team they're facing is, well, not.
I like the Buffalo Sabres' youth and enthusiasm (Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis), as well as the usual suspects (Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford), but I'm not sure they've got the arsenal to match Philadelphia down the stretch.
This Flyer lineup, on the other hand, is loaded with offensive talent and overflowing with defensive ability.
However, there is one area of concern for Philly, and that's goaltending.
As is the case in the Caps/Rangers series, if Ryan Miller can stymie Mike Richards, Danny Briere and the rest of the Flyer team, the Sabres are going to push this one to the brink and may even eliminate Philadelphia, when all is said and done.
I think Buffalo is a fairly strong team, which is why I do think they'll win a couple of games, but not strong enough to take four away from the Broad Street Bullies.
Eastern Conference: (3) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Montreal Canadiens
Prediction: Montreal Canadiens win series in 7.
We all know the Bruins are capable of winning and have the talent to make a run.
Ah, but if you can't deliver, potential means nothing and especially in the playoffs.
Tim Thomas will bring his A-game, of that you can be sure, but if Habs goaltender Carey Price can mimic his regular season performance, Boston's advantage in the crease won't be very large.
It's one thing to be a mediocre team riding on your goaltender, but when you've got players who can provide the goal scoring to back up the netminder, it's entirely possible to succeed in the playoffs.
Mike Camalleri, Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec, Scott Gomez and Andrei Kostitsyn are fully capable of carrying that offense, and, on the power play, James Wisniewski and P.K. Subban can move the puck around and create scoring opportunities.
The Bruins have some big guns at the point too, in Zdeno Chara and Tomas Kaberle, but this squad just does not strike me as a Cup contender. They get the production, the stats are all there, but on offense, they simply don't have any particular player who's a threat on a nightly basis.
Don't get me wrong, Boston should win this series. I just don't think they will. If the Bruins are on the outside looking in after seven games, it won't be because they didn't have enough talent to advance. It will be because, when push came to shove, they couldn't raise the ante.
Eastern Conference: (4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning
Prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning win series in 7.
If you think about it, the Lightning are in a very similar situation to the one Pittsburgh found themselves in, just a few years ago.
That would be 2006-07, when the high-flying, youthful Pens finished second in the Atlantic Division, only to run into the Ottawa Senators, a team that would go on to reach the Stanley Cup Finals that spring.
Alas, there are some differences between the two cases.
First of all, the Lightning have a couple of guys on their team who have either been to the Finals or won them (some with the Lightning), whereas, Pittsburgh was relatively inexperienced when it came to postseason play.
Second, the younger stars on this Tampa roster are not necessarily as heavily relied upon to carry the load the way Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were expected to in those days.
Finally, the Ottawa Senators were one of the highest-scoring teams in 2007, primarily due to their top line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, while the 2011 Penguins are missing Sid the Kid and Geno because of various injuries, which severely diminishes their odds of postseason success.
I think Tampa Bay has the right tools to defeat Pittsburgh in this series, especially if Dwayne Roloson keeps up his solid play. They also have a few names on defense that could make a difference, particularly Matthias Ohlund and Pavel Kubina.
Had Pittsburgh been going into the playoffs with their "two-headed monster," I would have picked them to knock out Tampa, but now that's going to be a much tougher feat.
They need Marc-Andre Fleury, who is quietly having a "Hart" warming second-half for this team, to really shoulder the burden, or the Pens will be reclining on sofas for the rest of the playoffs.
Western Conference: (1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Chicago Blackhawks
Prediction: Vancouver Canucks win series in 7.
It's hard to believe that, one season removed from being on top of the world, the Chicago Blackhawks have been reduced to the eighth seed in the West.
They certainly don't look like one on paper, and, had they been matched-up against any most other teams in the Western Conference playoff bracket, I'd have a hard time predicting the 'Hawks not to advance past the quarterfinals.
Unfortunately for Chicago, they've run smack-dab into the best team in the National Hockey League, the Vancouver Canucks.
That being said, I think the 'Hawks will give the 'Nucks a run for their money, something I would not have said about most teams that finished ahead of Chicago in the standings.
I have attempted to identify a weakness in this Vancouver lineup. There is not one.
From the crease out, these guys are easily the deepest team in the league.
They've got one of the top goaltenders in Roberto Luongo, as well as Cory Schneider, who likely would be a starter in several other organizations.
On offense, Sedin I and Sedin II are the best duo in hockey, and they have a supporting cast which features Ryan Kesler (best two-way forward in the NHL, hands down), Alexandre Burrows, Mason Raymond and so on.
The defense has suffered a few injuries, but they still have several strong blueliners who can pick up the slack.
Meanwhile, Chicago has four sure-fire offensive weapons in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.
After that, it's all but a mystery who (if anyone) will step up and score the big goals for this team.
That being said, the defense is as good as it's always been, with the usual suspects (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell) intact, and Corey Crawford has provided stability at the goaltending position.
The 'Hawks will miss Dustin Byfuglien's presence in this series. "Big Buff" was able to create a lot of havoc in front of Roberto Luongo, the last time these two teams faced-off in the playoffs, and Chicago doesn't necessarily have another guy who can play that role for them.
Western Conference: (2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Los Angeles Kings
Prediction: Los Angeles Kings win series in 5.
I know, I know. The Kings don't have Anze Kopitar until next season.
But if you think Kopitar was the reason this team played well, you need to think again.
Do you want to know why LA's the real deal? It's because they can play defense, and they play it well.
Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Matt Greene and Rob Scuderi are all excellent rearguards, and the barrier they put up in the defensive zone is not an easy one to penetrate.
And how about Jonathan Quick? Last I heard, he's a pretty decent netminder, having closed out 2010-2011 with the ninth-most wins and sixth-best goals against average in the NHL.
With regards to their "lack of offensive depth," that's all but a myth.
People forget the Kings still have Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth, Justin Williams and Dustin Penner, as well as a few other quality forwards.
The Sharks, on the other hand, remind me of the Washington Capitals of the last two seasons, in that they are absolutely loaded with scoring talent, paper-thin on defense and facing lots of questions surrounding their goaltending.
Outside of Dan Boyle, San Jose does not have much going for them on defense.
You know Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi will be a handful, but, once again, they are up against a defensively sharp Kings squad.
And, finally, which Anti Niemi will show up? The one who lead Chicago to a Stanley Cup last year, or the one that turned in a solid-at-best season for San Jose in 2011?
Western Conference: (3) Detroit Red Wings vs. (6) Phoenix Coyotes
Prediction: Detroit Red Wings win series in 6.
The Phoenix Coyotes are unique, in that there's not one forward on the team that stands out. On the flip-side, there's not one that isn't a quality player, either.
Keith Yandle is one of the better defensemen in the NHL, and, if you haven't heard of him/been convinced of that yet, it will become quite apparent during this series, regardless of whether or not the 'Yotes are able to escape the first round.
Additionally, Ilya Bryzgalov is going to make life miserable for Detroit's shooters.
The problem is, the Red Wings have enough talent, depth and experience to emerge victorious in this best-of-seven.
Factor in Nicklas Lidstrom, the ageless wonder who, at 40 (will turn 41 later this month), is still an exceptional defenseman in this league, and you've got the recipe for a winning team.
Jimmy Howard has shown he can make the stops when called upon, as has Joey McDonald, and, given Detroit's depth on defense, I'm not too worried about either of those two guys.
The Coyotes just don't match-up against the Red Wings, plain and simple. I do think they'll win two games, largely (if not entirely) because of Ilya Bryzgalov, but Detroit shouldn't have much trouble advancing to the next round.
Western Conference: (4) Anaheim Ducks vs. (5) Nashville Predators
Prediction: Anaheim Ducks win series in 6.
If there's any team in the West that's going to upset one of the Conference powerhouses, it's going to be Anaheim.
Why, you ask? Because they're built for the postseason and, their top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan matches-up with any other trio in the NHL.
Speaking of Corey Perry, what a show he put on this season, finishing with 50 goals and 48 assists, good for 98 points.
Additionally, they've got Teemu Selanne, who is still going strong, despite his age. His playoff experience and knack for scoring clutch goals will do wonders for this Ducks team.
Cam Fowler, yet another rookie being ignored in the Calder Trophy conversation, has stepped up all year long and there's no reason to think he'll suddenly slow down.
Jonas Hiller, when healthy, is capable of playing at a high level, and Ray Emery's been sharp since joining the Ducks, so I don't think goaltending will be their Achilles-heel.
I think Nashville will win a couple of games because, they do have a strong blueline, featuring Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and they've got a Vezina-worthy netminder in Pekka Rinne.
Nashville's group of forwards doesn't exactly scream "power surge," and the addition of Carrie Underwood, oops, I meant Mike Fisher, certainly helped, but didn't solidify the roster.
Still, I just don't see those factors being enough for the Predators to come away with a series victory. If the offense comes through, this could go to seven games, but I like the Ducks in this series.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter: @nyifaceoff360
Comments are welcome.