Alright, time to put my hockey knowledge to the test. My NCAA basketball bracket was a total bust, but with fewer teams and 7 game series, there is slightly less chance for upsets. Nothing too in depth here, but my predictions for the first round of the playoffs, starting with the Western Conference:
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)
On paper, this is a pretty easy choice. The Canucks boast one of the best offenses in the game and no matter what you think about Roberto Luongo, he should be able to stop a Kings offense that has failed to live up to its potential and if he can’t, Cory Schneider is set to take over with his sparkling numbers. While the Kings defense has been stingy and goalie Jonathan Quick could steal a game or two, I don’t see them beating the Canucks in a best of seven, especially with Daniel Sedin set to return. Even without both Sedin’s, Vancouver’s going to take this one. Prediction: Vancouver in 5.
St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7)
The Blues come in giving up less than 2 goals per game. Their transformation under Ken Hitchcock has been simply miraculous. They have 2 strong goalies and an allow about 26 shots per game, compared to 33 for the Sharks. The Sharks took it to the wire to even make the playoffs and they have struggled so badly on offense that I don’t see them beating the Blues in goals output. However, I see a potential for a few OT games in this series. The worry for the Blues is on the power play, as they are only running about 16%, while San Jose has a 21% conversion rate. But, factor in that the Sharks have an atrocious penalty kill (2nd to last in the league) and I see those factors cancelling each other out. I see the Sharks getting two wins, but that won’t be enough to save the team from getting blown up in the off-season as ownership realizes there is no grit/leadership in the dressing room to carry the team to a Stanley Cup. Prediction: St. Louis in 6.
Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)
Man, I had to think about this one for a while. The problem is that Phoenix simply lacks the offensive weapons to take over a series. The Coyotes play strong defensively, and Mike Smith sure has been hot coming in, but they have a hard time coming back after going behind. But I wonder if Chicago get it together on defense enough to actually get a lead. Offensively, they are having some issues Their powerplay is atrocious and another potential issue for Chicago is their penalty kill, which is under 80%. Part of this has been due to inconsistent goaltending, which is not a problem the Coyotes have. This series could probably go either way, but Phoenix did own Chicago during the regular season. I see a few OT games in this one. Prediction: Phoenix in 7.
Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)
This is the year for Nashville, in that they must produce if they want to convince Ryan Suter and Shea Weber to stay. They are the elite shutdown D-pairing in the league and with Hal Gill added to the backline (although he is questionable as I write this), the Predators look solid defensively. In my mind, it really depends on if the Predators can take advantage of home ice and if Alexander Radulov shows up to bring the goods. Detroit has an AWFUL road record so I can see them dropping the first two games on the road. They have struggled lately and will be facing the best powerplay in the league. I feel like getting the first goal will be key for games in this series. Prediction: Nashville in 7.
And now for the Eastern Conference:
New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)
Quite a few people see a potential for an upset, but I don’t buy it. The Rangers have a lights-out goalie and the 3rd best defense in the league. The Senators have been a surprise team, led by a superb defenseman in Karlsson. They actually score more goals than the Rangers as well, but I see that trend ending this series. The Rangers just have too much talent and momentum to get upset. The Senators could steal a game or two, but goaltending is going to be an issue for them compared with King Henrik. Gaborik is obviously going to have to produce, as is the Ranger powerplay which needs to get a LOT better to win the Cup. But the Rangers do well when scoring first and can protect leads. I see them winning this round pretty easily. Prediction: New York in 6.
Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)
Some experts are picking an upset here, but I’m no expert, and I think it comes down to Tim Thomas outplaying whoever is in goal for the Caps. Washington snuck into the playoffs with some help from Buffalo, so one could argue that they’re peaking, but I don’t see the lack of commitment disappearing suddenly for the playoffs. The Bruins have a scary good offense when it is clicking and the Caps have been plagued by defensive issues since well, since forever it seems. Special teams seems like a washout, so it comes down to drive. Boston wants to repeat and expects to make it there. Washington thinks they can surprise, but I think their surprise came when they performed so poorly all season. Prediction: Boston in 5 with at least one blowout of the Caps.
Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)
I’m not sure if I would pick the Panthers to beat Ottawa if that was their matchup. Martin Brodeur has been too good the Devils and their offense is getting strong seasons from Kovalchuk, Parise and David Clarkson. Florida is going to need to score a lot of goals and I don’t see that happening as they lack a 30-goal scorer. Too bad though, as they are a promising team that has gotten strong goaltending all around (I think Jakob Markstrom is going to be a solid #1 in a year or so for someone). New Jersey has the best penalty kill in the league, so I don’t see Florida winning the special teams battle. Better luck next year. Prediction: New Jersey in 5.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)
The matchup I love to hate. As a Penguins fan, I’m confident we can beat any team 4 out of 7 times, but the Flyers are such a huge rivalry that it makes it a simply brutal first round matchup. Whoever comes out of this is going to be hurting, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the playoffs, unless say they match up against the Senators (unlikely). What’s left to say about these teams? The Penguins have the scariest offense in the game with an absurd power play. When they are firing on all cylinders, they are a Cup team. However, the Flyers are strong, nasty and have plenty of talent. Scott Hartnell has taken his game to another level and is poised to take over the first round. My hope is that we avoid any injuries to key players and win the battle on special teams and that Philadelphia’s goaltending playoff woes continue here. Here’s to possibly the best series we’ll see this year. Prediction: Penguins in 7.