Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Eastern Conference First Round Predictions

You need 16 wins now, but this is still the coolest tradition ever.
#1 Washington Capitals vs. #8 New York Rangers
Season series: 3-1 New York

New York Preview (Last ten: 6-3-1)
There was no shootout this year, and the Rangers are thankful for it. It took some huge wins against the Flyers and Bruins for it to happen, but the Rangers are back in the playoffs. Getting to the postseason didn't come without a cost, though. The Rags will be without their second-leading goal scorer (23G) and second-leading scorer overall (48 pts.), Ryan Callahan, who is out with a broken hand. But even without Callahan, the Rangers are still one of the league's best shot-blocking teams and can forecheck with the best of them. They have a solid defense led by youngsters Marc Staal and Dan Girardi and veteran Brian McCabe, but if the Rangers want to have any chance of winning this series, netminder Henrik Lundqvist is going to have to be nearly unbeatable. He posted 11 shutouts in the regular season and is probably going to need to post a few more for the Rangers to advance.

Washington Preview (Last ten: 7-2-1)
 The Capitals are a much different team than the one that got bounced in the first round by the Canadiens last year, even though they have pretty much the same players. Coach Bruce Boudreau changed the style of the team from a regular season-style of run-and-gun offense to a more playoff-style defensive kind of play. They have the usual suspects of Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Alex Semin, Mike Knuble and Nick Backstrom.
They play a more defensive style, but I still believe the Washington defense is one of the most overrated ones in the league. Mike Green is a defenseman who doesn't play very good defense and veterans Dennis Wideman and Tom Poti are battling injuries. They do have a good young D-pair in John Carlson and Karl Alzner that is probably their best duo. The X-Factor, though, will be net play for the Capitals. Expect to see both Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov in this series, and if either goes cold, it could be a quick out for Washington.

Everyone knows what the Caps went through in during that eight game stretch in the beginning of December. Anyone who watches the Caps or Rags (or watched 24/7) regularly knows Washington lost, 7-0, to the Rangers over that streak. But those who don't watch either team on a regular basis may not know that the Rangers demolished the Caps 6-0 in late February. But it took the Carolina Hurricanes to lay a emu-sized egg in their final regular season game for the Rangers to even make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. And in that '09 season, the Rangers lost to the Capitals in in the first round in seven games. Will it be the same outcome two years later?
Prediction: Washington wins the series in 6

#2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #7 Buffalo Sabres
Season series: Tied 2-2

Philadelphia Preview (Last ten: 3-4-3)
They haven't played well at all lately, plain and simple. They've looked flat, bored and downright uninterested. But there is something the Flyers have that other teams don't -- experience. And a ton of it. The Flyers know what it takes to get to the Cup Final, and the majority of the season they were simply waiting for this very time of year. Can they flip the switch, though? Their depth says it's a good possibility. With three legitimate scoring lines led by Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, the Flyers can score at any given moment. But not only do the Flyers have offensive depth, they're deep on the blue line as well. If Chris Pronger returns (which many guess he will by Game 2 at the latest) he'll join a defense that includes arguably the most underrated D-man in the league, Kimmo Timonen, master of the overtime, Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle. The question, as it has been since Ron Hextall left, lies between the pipes. Can Sergei Bobrovsky handle the playoff pressure? We shall see.

Buffalo Preview (Last ten: 8-1-1)
Ryan Miller. That's it. Miller is this series for the Sabres. There's not much to Buffalo besides that guy. They have some quick scorers in Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis and 73-point guy Thomas Vanek. They have last season's Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers on defense to go along with vets Steve Montador and Andrej Sekera. Injuries are the big problem for this team, though. They won't have Jordan Leopold or Derek Roy for most, if not all of the series and could be without Jochen Hecht, Andrej Sekera and Mike Grier. But once again it's Ryan Miller. If he can be the Vezina Trophy winner he was last year, and the Sabres can continue their hot streak, it could spell a first round exit for the Flyers.

There's little doubt that if the Flyers play up to their potential they're the best team in the Eastern Conference. And that's what this series depends on, will the Flyers play up to their potential? I say yes.
Prediction: Philadelphia wins the series in 6

#3 Boston Bruins vs. #6 Montreal Canadiens
Season series: 4-2 Montreal

Montreal Preview (Last ten: 5-4-1)
Last season it was Jaroslav Halak who stole the show for the Canadiens. Who will it be this year? No playoff team has scored fewer goals at even strength than the Canadiens, and if the Habs want to advance they're going to need to put the puck in the net eventually. Tomas Plekanec leads the way with 22 goals and 57 points, but the next highest scorer is 10 points behind (Mike Cammalleri). The Canadiens did, though, finish in the top-10 in the league on both the power play and penalty kill. How? I have no idea.
The Habs have gone most of the season without their two best D-men in Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, but P.K. Subban and 51-point man James Wisniewski have held down the fort. Carey Price has also shown he has the intestinal fortitude to handle the regular season strains, but can he handle the postseason?

Boston Preview (Last ten: 6-3-1)
I think, aside from if the Flyers play up to their potential, the Bruins are the best team in the East. They're tough, physical, good on the forecheck and carry the league's best goalie in Tim Thomas. Similar to the Sabres, if Thomas continues to play as well as he has played, there's no reason to believe the B's won't win this series. But there's always a little more than that.
For an offense that wasn't tremendous last year, Boston sports a fairly deep team up front. They have Milan Lucic who had a career year, topping the 30-goal plateau for the first time, and have strong centermen with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Their defense ain't too shabby either with the monster of a man, Zdeno Chara, and deadline acquisition Tomas Kaberle.

An Original Six matchup for the ages, this one is. The two teams (and fan bases, especially) don't like each other. Did the Bruins mature after what happened to them against the Flyers last year? Will the Chara hit on Max Pacioretty come into play in this series? I don't know, but if it does, look out. This could be a good one.
Prediction: Boston wins the series in 5

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Season series: Tied 2-2

Tampa Bay Preview (Last ten: 7-3-0)
After being minus for the majority of the season, the Lightning managed to be +7 in goal differential for the year. What does that say? I'm really not sure except for the fact that when the Lightning lose, they give up a lot of goals. Coach Guy Boucher has a style that sometimes works really well, and then again, sometimes doesn't. Their offense of Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Teddy Purcell and Simon Gagne can put the puck in the net with the best of them. But their defense of Victor Hedman, Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina sometimes have trouble keeping the puck out. Rollie the Goalie (Dwayne Roloson) has been surprisingly good in net for the Bolts, and they need him to keep it up in order to win.

Pittsburgh Preview (Last ten: 8-2-0)
No Crosby, no Malkin? No problem. How have they done it? Without their top-2 scorers (and Jordan Staal for some time) for the majority of the season, I don't know how the Pens have remained in the upper echelons the Eastern Conference. If coach Dan Bylsma doesn't win the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, the award is meaningless. How he has managed to change the entire team's playing style to work without Malkin and Crosby is truly amazing. They're not offensively deep by any means, though. In fact, they're pretty terrible at netting pucks, but James Neal, Staal, Alex Kovalev and Tyler Kennedy have done enough to grind out wins and get points for the Penguins. The main reason the Pens have remained so successful is their back end with Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Zybnek Michalek and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury was pretty bad in the beginning of the season, but he's back to 2008-09 form now, which is scary for any team he faces in the playoffs.

I honestly can't wait for this series -- a potent offense in Tampa Bay and a solid defense in Pittsburgh. Will the Pens score enough goals to advance? I think this is going to be a long series, but if the Penguins can't find the back of the net early, it could be quick out for the Pens.
Prediction: Pittsburgh wins the series in 7

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