The playoffs are here, that magical second season that energizes the fans of each team that made it into final eight for each conference. The first round shapes up to present some interesting battles and compelling hockey.
The matchups are set and so it is time for the View to present his much anticipated first round picks. Let's start with the Western Conference games.
#1 San Jose vs. #8 Colorado
The San Jose Sharks, perennial disappointments in the playoffs, captured the number one seed in the West with a 51-20-11 record, good for 113 points. The Colorado Avalanche fought their way into the eighth spot with a 43-30-9 record and 95 points. The Avalanche rode the strong play of goalie Craig Anderson throughout the season, and early on, Anderson was spectacular. The concern was that Anderson was tiring after the Olympic break because his play started to fall off. The Avalanche have been led by rookie sensation Matt Duchense and were bolstered by the acquisition of Peter Mueller from the Phoenix Coyotes at the trade deadline. Unfortunately for the Avs, Duchense is nicked up with a torso injury and Mueller is out with a concussion. The Sharks bring an explosive offense to this contest, with Danny Heatley, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau leading the charge. Evgeni Nabokov anchors the net for the Sharks. Although he has played a number of games during the regular season and the Olympics, his play has been strong. The teams split the regular season series, with each team winning two games. Look for the Sharks to overwhelm the Avalanche in this series.
Prediction: Sharks in 5
#2 Chicago vs. #7 Nashville
Two central division rivals square off in what should be one of the most compelling matchups in the first round. I expect this series to be a war. Chicago captured the season series 4-2, but the teams have not played each other since December 27th. On paper, the Blackhawks look to be the dominant team, and they have an offense that can put the puck in the net. Their defensive corps has been dinged with the loss of Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson, forcing some younger players into contributing more minutes. The Predators have not won a road playoff game in the history of the franchise. This will be the year that dubious distinction disappears. Look for the Predators to play sound defense and continue to score by committee. If they can turn this into a grind it out series instead of a wide open, run and gun series, the Predators have a good chance of winning. Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne must continue his strong play to give the Predators a chance. I think he will. This series will be the upset of the first round.
Prediction: Nashville in 6
#3 Vancouver vs #6 Los Angeles
This will be an interesting series as the Canucks bring a potent and balanced offense to the ice to face a young and talented Kings defense. The Kings have offensive firepower as well and this series could become one of the highest scoring series of the first round. The Canucks went 49-28-5 for 103 points; the Kings were 46-27-9, good for 101 points. Vancouver took the regular season series 3-1. The Canucks boast one of the best netminders in the game in Roberto Luongo, and when he is on his game, he is very hard to beat. The Kings counter with young netminder Jonathan Quick, who had a very good season, although he struggled at the end. The confidence level of Quick could be an issue with his late season struggles. The Canucks have the dangerous Sedin twins and surprising goal scorer Alex Burrows leading the offense. The Kings are led by Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth, Fredrick Modin, and Michael Handzus. For L.A. to have a chance in this series, the defense has to control the Vancouver offense. In a seven game series, I don't think that is going to happen.
Prediction: Vancouver in 6
#4 Phoenix vs #5 Detroit
The surprising Phoenix Coyotes against perennial playoff competitor Detroit. Underdog and outcast competing against the gold standard of hockey franchises. Phoenix had an outstanding season, riding the strong goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov to a 50-25-7 record and 107 points. The Wings found a stellar netminder in rookie Jimmy Howard, and compiled a 44-24-14 record and 102 points. Early in the season, the Wings contended with a multitude of injuries, but started to get healthy in the second half of the year. As their health improved so did their play, and the Wings have hit the playoffs playing their best hockey of the year. By contrast, the Coyotes were strong all year long. New Head Coach Dave Tippett has brought an aggressive forechecking style to the Coyotes, and they pressure the opponents into turnovers and subsequent scoring opportunities. The Coyotes are playing confident, loose hockey right now, and the team that gets the early advantage will win this series. These teams split the season series 2-2. In a battle of goaltenders, Ilya Bryzgalov bests the rookie Jimmy Howard.
Prediction: Phoenix in 7
And now to take a look at the Eastern Conference:
#1 Washington vs #8 Montreal
The most explosive offensive team in the playoffs meets a team that clawed their way into the playoffs in the last week of the season. The Capitals are led by offensive stars Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Brooks Laich. The Canadiens counter with the "smurfs"- Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, and Michael Cammalleri . Jose Theodore will anchor the net for the Caps, and the only question surrounding the Capitals and their quest for the Cup will be his play. If he is strong in net, this will be a short series. Look for the Capitals to attempt to be physical and exert their will on the Canadiens. Defensemen Hal Gill, Andrei Markov, and Roman Hamrlik will have their hands full trying to contain the Caps forwards. Jaroslav Halak will keep the Canadiens in the series, but eventually, the Caps should prevail. The season series was split 2-2, but I do not think this will be indicative of the level of play in this playoff round.
Prediction: Caps in 5
#2 New Jersey vs #7 Philadelphia
The Devils finished the regular season 48-27-7 for 103 points; the Flyers finished 41-35-6 and 88 points. Interestingly, the Flyers took the season series with the Devils 5-1. The Flyers have talent and can put the puck in the net. They can be very undisciplined, as well. If the Flyers can contain their emotions, avoid dumb penalties, and play sound hockey, they will have the ability to win this series. Those are very big "ifs" for this team. The Devils have future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur in net, and although he has had a very strong regular season, he has had a tendency to be very average in the playoffs over the past several seasons. Look for the Devils to trap the Flyers throughout the series and shut their offense down. I expect Brodeur to play with a chip on his shoulder and show that he is still an elite playoff goalie. This series will be a ferocious, physical series, and the team that shows the most discipline will be victorious.
Prediction: Devils in 7
#3 Buffalo vs #6 Boston
Boston won this season series 4-2, and this is telling, because most of these games were played when both teams had a full complement of healthy players. This series opens with both teams suffering injuries to key players. The Bruins are without Marc Savard, undoubtedly the most potent offensive weapon on their squad. The Sabres have Thomas Vanek nicked up and Tim Connolly and Patrick Kaleta doubtful for the first round. The Sabres rode the goaltending of Ryan Miller to a 45-27-10 record and 100 points while the Bruins Tuuka Rask led them to a 39-30-13 record and 91 points. It's no secret that as goes Miller, so goes the Sabres. If he is solid in net, the Sabres should win the series. Likewise, if Rask is on his game, the Bruins will make it a series and could possibly steal a first round win. I expect this series to be a war of attrition, and the team with the healthiest players and best goaltending will be the survivor.
Prediction: Buffalo in 7
#4 Pittsburgh vs #5 Ottawa
The surprising Senators came on strong to claim the fifth spot in the East with a 44-32-6 record and 94 points. The prize for this effort- meeting the Penguins and their explosive offense. Pittsburgh finished the season 47-28-7 and with 101 points. These teams split their season series 2-2, and on the surface, it would appear that the Pens should take care of business in this matchup. Expect the Sens to give the Pens a serious challenge as they have some offensive pop in the form of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredson, and Mike Fisher. The key to this series will be the ability of the Ottawa defense to keep Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company in check. The edge in goaltending should go to the Penguins with Marc-Andre Fleury in net. His experience in the playoffs and in handling the pressure of a series should give him over his counterpart Brian Elliott. I look for the Pens to wear down the Senators and have too much offense for them to handle.
Prediction: Penguins in 5
And there you have it, the fearless predictions of the first round from the View. My advice: don't bet the rent money on these predictions.