The NHL season starts in just over a month and I'm sure that we are all twiddling our thumbs waiting for the drop of the puck. Instead of constantly reviewing trades, signings and rumors, or looking over the college football rankings for the umpteenth time, I decided to do a little walk into the prediction territory by picking out the potential first round match-ups for the 2011-2012 postseason.
With the flurry of signings that most teams made during these long summer months, the race for the playoffs seems tighter than ever before. Only a couple of teams in each conference have extremely low chances of making the playoffs with most being in contention for a top eight spot.
- Toronto (92 Points)- Toronto improved their roster drastically this past offseason by acquiring Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and Tim Connolly. On paper this team can be playoff ready and the city is more than ready for it. However the problem for the Leafs this year will be injuries and they will narrowly miss the playoffs with their top line missing more than a third of the season.
- Montreal (94 Points)- The big signing by Montreal this season was Erik Cole. Although Cole has a lot of talent and will definitely help the offense in Montreal, injuries again will force him and a couple other members of the Canadiens out of the lineup and narrowly out of the playoffs.
- St. Louis (91 Points)- The additions of Arnott and Langenbrunner will only help the Blues increase by about four points this season. How many more seasons until Tarasenko gets here?
- Columbus (92 Points)- I'm predicting a very strong opening half for the Blue Jackets this season. However, after the hype of Jeff Carter arriving in Columbus they will start to slow down in about February.
The Devils rebound in tremendous fashion by sneaking into the eighth spot in the playoffs, garnering a first round match-up against the Presidents' Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals.
The Devils make the playoffs for two reasons. A healthy Zach Parise and an outstanding rookie effort by none other than Adam Larsson leads the Devils back into the Eastern Conference elite.
Overall, however, the Capitals improve greatly in the offensive categories and only take a minor step back defensively next season. Look for Ovechkin and Backstrom to both have huge rebound seasons and for Vokoun to start around 55 regular season games. He will be the starter for this playoff round as well, pitting two of the world's best veteran goaltenders against each other.
In the end the Capitals narrowly escape the jaws of defeat again and win the round 4-3.
The Atlantic Division will be one of the toughest in the NHL next season. Even though the teams will beat each other up tremendously next season, look for four out of the five teams to make it into the top eight.
This match-up has two franchises with a deep history squaring off in the first round. The Penguins look not to repeat a first round exit while the youth injected Flyers look to stun the rest of the NHL by upsetting Sidney Crosby and his Pens.
Overall if Crosby is 100% healthy by this point in the season (which is probably going to be in question) then the Penguins will prevail. If he isn't healthy, the supreme coaching of Dan Bylsma will still probably take the Penguins past the youthful Flyers.
The Boston Bruins win the Northeast Division for the second year in a row and have themselves matched up against the Brad Richards led New York Rangers in the first round.
Obviously the reigning champions still boast an impressive team that has all the chance in the world to repeat this season. The only problem is, they get knocked out in the first round here in one of the biggest upsets of the playoffs. The series goes to seven, but the grind it out style of the Rangers surprisingly pushes them to the second round for the first time since 2008.
Look for Brad Marchand to be a huge point scorer for the Bruins and for Brad Richards to earn his paycheck by leading the pack in this opening round.
The Buffalo Sabres added Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff to bolster their offense for the 2011-2012 season. However they failed to keep Tim Connolly and their point total only increases slightly from last season. Overall however they are still a better team and put up a fight against the Tampa Bay Lightning who finish second in the Southeast.
Tampa Bay's rising star Steven Stamkos captures the Rocket Richard trophy but the lackluster blue line slows the Lightning down a bit in the standings.
Overall look for Martin St. Louis to once again show his playoff heroics while Stamkos stays suspiciously quiet. The Lightning win the round 4-1.
The Minnesota Wild make a surprise improvement from last season by narrowly sneaking in to the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
Perhaps the most exciting match-up of the first round sees the offensive juggernaut Sharks against their recent trade buddies the Wild. The Sharks and Wild were involved in three different trades that sent a multitude of players to either side. The Sharks propel to the top of the Western Conference with their star studded blue line and because of vast improvement on the top three forward lines next season. Look for Mitchell and McGinn to step up tremendously during the regular season.
On the Minnesota side, their relatively undermentioned defense carries the team using a rough and tough style of play. On the offense, Heatley finds some chemistry with Koivu and improves back to his 40-goal, 80-point form.
An exciting first round match-up indeed but in the end, the Wild fail to pull off an upset and the Sharks move on to the next round by the score of 4-2.
Also an extremely interesting first round pits the previous Presidents' Trophy winner Vancouver Canucks against the rugged Nashville Predators.
The Predators want to once again prove that they can compete in the NHL by trying to repeat their one time feat of advancing to the second round again this season. Oddly enough they will have to compete against the team that ended their postseason run last season.
Overall the Sedins are in the running for the Art Ross trophy again but come up just short in the regular season. Weber of the Predators gets another nomination for the Norris Trophy but he as well comes up just short in the NHL Awards.
Hungry for redemption for the playoffs this season, the Canucks storm past the Predators 4-1 in the first round.
The Blackhawks take over the Central from the Red Wings by recording 103 points while lighting up the score sheet all season long. Toews, Kane and Keith propel this team to a first round berth against the dark horse Anaheim Ducks.
The Ducks sneak themselves into sixth place with another impressive run by Selanne and a relatively healthy Jonas Hiller but are still considered major underdogs to the year older and year wiser Chicago Blackhawks.
The Ducks however pull off an amazing and thrilling upset by knocking out the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup champions by a final round score of 4-3. Can anyone say overtime game seven?
The captain Nicklas Lidstrom once again puts up hall of fame numbers during the regular season, but only leads the Red Wings to a 5th round berth because of the competitiveness of the Central Division.
The much improved Los Angeles Kings put up an impressive 105 points but fall just short of dethroning the Sharks for the Pacific Division title and end up in 4th place.
The Kings have one of the scariest depth charts at forward, defense and also a very impressive tandem of Jonathans in goal. The Red Wings scare Los Angeles fans by coming out to a 2-0 lead on the road but overall the Kings win four straight to win the first round 4-2. The crowd at the Joe stands and applauds the Hall of Fame career of Nicklas Lidstrom at the end of the game.
Stay tuned for the second round match-ups and predictions in the coming days.
Thanks for reading!