In the Eastern Conference:
(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators
The New York Rangers come in heavy favorites in public opinion, but this series may be closer than most people think. Ottawa went 3-1 against the Rangers this year, outscoring them 13-8. Ottawa had a nice year from their goalie, Craig Anderson, and has several top tier players including Milan Michalek, Daniel Alfredsson, Eric Karlsson, and Jason Spezza. The Rangers elite defense won a majority of their games this year while their offense was anemic at times. If the Senators can get to the Rangers goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, they have a good chance of taking the series. I think it will be hard-fought, back-and-forth series with the Senators pulling off the upset, winning in seven.
(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals
Boston's first stop on their journey to winning the Stanley Cup for two years straight is in Washington. The Bruins have the advantage in the series, 2-1, but it was a pretty close series and no team was truly dominant. Both teams began the year horrendously, but they each bounced back. Boston has one of the most potent offenses in league, while Washington's offense led by Alexander Ovechkin can become lethal at any time. I see Boston's netminder, Tim Thomas, shutting down the Caps offense, while the Bruins cruise to the next round, winning the series 4-2.
(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils
For the first time since 2000, the Panthers are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last year, for the second time in sixteen years, the Devils were out of the playoffs. Both teams are looking to prove themselves in this first round matchup. The Panthers finished with less points than the Devils, however they won the season series 3-1 and found themselves the Southeast Division winner. At the same time, New Jersey comes in red hot, winning six straight and are 27-11 -7 since January. The Devils offense has been improving over the course of the season and that will be the key. The Devils goalie, Martin Brodeur, has been consistent all year and the Devils should expect him to yield 2-3 goals but their offense should make up for it. The Panthers have yet to name a starting goalie which highlights their inconsistency at that position. Lastly, for most of the players for Florida have limited to no playoff experience. All but four of the Devils have postseason experience. I see the Devils playoff experience carrying them into the second round after a seven game series with Florida
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers
This might be the best series in the first round. It has all the components: A fierce instate rivalry, a close season series (where Philadelphia had the slight advantage), and pressure to win for each club. Both teams do not forget the brawl that erupted in the last meeting between them last week, which should only intensify the atmosphere. Both teams can score. But I believe the goalies will make or break their respective teams. I believe Marc-Andre Fleury (PIT) has a slight advantage over Ilya Burzgalov (PHI). Pittsburgh will come out victorious in this series after an entertaining seven games.
In the Western Conference:
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings
The big headline in this series is goaltending - Roberto Luongo vs. Jonathan Quick. Both are elite. Quick has my vote for the Venza trophy, awarded to the league's best goalie. But there is a big difference between the two clubs - offense. The Kings ranked 29th in offense while the Canucks have a very solid offense and one of the league's best powerplays. Luongo had a disastrous end to the playoffs last yea, but I do not believe that will be a problem this year because of their goaltending depth as Cory Schneider plays well enough to start on most clubs. The Canucks will be breaking out the brooms after the four game sweep.
(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose
The St. Louis Blues have a problem most coaches would love to have. They don't know which goalie to start heading into the playoffs after both goalies (in about the same amount of starts) put up nearly identical numbers in goals against average (below 2.00) and save percentage (.926 compared to .940). The Blues also have a solid offense as they dominated the Sharks in the season series, outscoring them 11-3. While the Sharks have more experience, they are not brig treated as a real threat to go deep into the playoffs. They will get a lot of shots off on net (number two in the league), but it does not equate to an outstanding offense. Match that up with average goal tending and I agree with their critics - Blues in five games.
(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks
If you would have asked who would have won this series back in November, I would have said Blackhawks in four or five. They have a more talented roster, greater depth at each position and they have a very supportive fan base. However, two things have happened since. Chicago's stellar, young center Jonathan Toews, after suffering a concussion in February, is expected to return at some point in the next few weeks, but there is no guarantee he will play in this series. Toews won the Playoffs MVP two years back and is vital to this hockey team for them to dominate. Secondly, Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith is on fire right now and his stats this year were extremely impressive. If he continues to be a brick wall in front of the net this series could be really exciting. I believe Chicago's goaltending will hold them back as Mike Smith's Coyotes win in six games.
(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
There is something about these four vs. five seeds. There is always the mood that the series will be thrilling and will go to seven games. I believe this series will be no exception. It is a major point that Nashville is home four times and only plays in Detroit three times. Detroit had ten regulation and overtime losses combined at home this year compared to thirty-one wins. One might ask, how are they seeded fifth. That is due to their sub .500 record on the road. Despite being ranked 7th in Goals and Goals Against, this club just does not know how to win on the road. Nashville is a very solid team. The are eighth in the two categories mentioned above but have the best powerplay and a top ten penalty kill unit. They are very good in several ways which makes them difficult to beat. I see this thrilling series going in seven games to the Nashville Predators.
After each day, I will break down the action and give insight to the games coming up next. Enjoy the first few games which are:
-Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins - 7:30PM EST - Coverage on NBC Sports Network
-Detroit Red Wings at Nashville Predators - 8:00PM EST - Coverage on CNBC
-Los Angeles Kings at Vancouver Canucks - 10:30PM EST - Coverage on NBC Sports Network