With the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs set to begin, here’s my take on each series of the Conference Quarterfinals.
Vancouver Canucks vs Los Angeles Kings. Thanks to goalie Jonathan Quick, the Kings gave up the second-fewest goals in the league, but they’re also one of the lowest-scoring teams. That will cost them going up against the Canucks, the best regular season team for the second straight year, who have depth at every position, and proved in last year’s post-season they can handle low-scoring, grinding defensive teams. The Canucks could also have Daniel Sedin back in the lineup, adding even more offensive punch. Quick could steal a game or two,but won’t carry the Kings to an upset. CANUCKS IN FIVE.
St. Louis Blues vs San Jose Sharks. This one’s not as easy to call as it appears. While the Blues dominated the Sharks this season, sweeping the season series, the former struggled down the stretch, while the latter won seven of their final ten games. The Sharks also have considerably more playoff experience as a team than the Blues. I wouldn’t completely rule out an upset, but ultimately believe Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, no slouch to the post-season himself, will sufficiently motivate his charges, though this series might not be as short as some believe. BLUES IN SEVEN.
Phoenix Coyotes vs Chicago Blackhawks. Though the Blackhawks struggled with consistency and their defensive play this season, they were 6-1-3 in their final ten regular season games, and will get a big boost with the return of team captain Jonathan Toews from concussion. The Coyotes, however, won three of four from the Blackhawks this season, were among the hottest teams in the league down the stretch, and received phenomenal goaltending from Mike Smith. This is a team long overdue for playoff success, and while the Blackhawks are an experienced playoff team, this could finally be the year the Coyotes advance past the first round. COYOTES IN SIX.
Nashville Predators vs Detroit Red Wings. The last time these two clubs met in the playoffs was 2008, as the favored Wings dispatched the underdog Predators in six games in the opening round en route to the Stanley Cup. This time, however, the matchup is more even, as demonstrated by the fact they split their season series 3-3. The Wings still possess considerable playoff experience, led by warhorses Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but the Predators are younger, plus are healthier and deeper in talent than they were in 2008. This series will be hard-fought, but ultimately the Predators should prevail. PREDATORS IN SIX.
New York Rangers vs Ottawa Senators. On the surface, this appears a one-side affair. The Rangers finished nearly twenty points up on the rebuilding Senators, and dominated the Eastern Conference standings. The Senators, however, won three of four games from the Blueshirts this season, and 11 of 14 games at Madison Square Garden since the lockout. Still, given the Rangers depth in talent this season – especially on the blueline – and with Vezina candidate Henrik Lundqvist in goal, they have the edge over the Senators. While the weight of expectation lies heavier with the Rangers, expect them to rise to the occasion. RANGERS IN SIX.
Boston Bruins vs Washington Capitals. The Capitals took three of four from the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins during their regular season series. With Alexander Ovechkin reunited with a now-healthy Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals remain a dangerous team, but injuries see them heading into this series with untested rookie Braden Holtby. The Bruins have their injury woes too, with defenseman Adam McQuaid questionable to start this series and forward Nathan Horton gone for the season, but still have the advantage of depth over the Capitals. Expect 2011 playoff MVP Tim Thomas to once again be the difference maker. BRUINS IN FIVE.
Florida Panthers vs New Jersey Devils. It’s the first time in the playoffs for the Panthers since 2000, while the Devils are back after missing the cut last year. It also sees Devils coach Pete DeBoer facing his former team, adding an intriguing storyline. The two teams split their four-game regular season series, but entering the playoffs, the Devils experience could come to the fore. The Panthers also backed into the playoffs, winning only two of their last ten regular season games, while the Devils were red-hot, winning seven of their last ten, including all of their final five games. While a Panthers series victory would certainly be a feel-good story for this once-mediocre franchise, they’re unlikely to get it against this motivated, experienced Devils team. DEVILS IN FIVE.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Philadelphia Flyers. This is expected to be the most physical, entertaining series of the opening round. Put simply, these two clubs hate each other, so there’s expected to be fireworks aplenty. The Penguins were among the hottest teams in the league over the final two months of the season, bolstered by Art Ross winner Evgeni Malkin and the return of team captain Sidney Crosby from injury. The Flyers, meanwhile, are a talented, physical team, and forwards Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell always seem to elevate their game in the post-season. Ultimately, this series could come down to goaltending, where Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has the advantage over Flyers netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, who’ll be facing considerable pressure to silence his critics and carry the Flyers to glory. PENGUINS IN SEVEN.
NOTE: I have no problem with folks disagreeing about my predictions and offering up counterpoints. After all, this is only done for fun, and I don’t lose sleep over how my predictions turn out.
What I do have a problem with is those who take it personally if I predict their team will be eliminated by writing in with insults and threats.
Folks, it’s only a game, ok? If your’e a hockey fan whose sense of self-worth is based upon the performance of your favorite team, seek professional help immediately. If I don’t pick your team to win a series, don’t take it personally. And if you’re inclined to do so, find somewhere else to whine about it.