Anyone who follows the NHL knows by now that the NHL playoffs start Wednesday night with 4 of the match-ups playing game 1. For some it will be 1 of many to come, and for others it could only be one of a handful before they are forced into an early summer. For everyone who thinks the NBA or NFL playoffs are the hardest, you are flat out wrong. The physical nature of the game takes a whole step up in the playoffs, and every night players put everything on the line just to make one play, only to do it over and over again. By the time the two teams that make it to the Stanley Cup finals make it there, they have played probably 15-20 games and then still have another best of 7 series to win it all. It is tough, painful, emotional, riveting, and beautiful. To see players skate with injuries that should rule them out of the game, to see goalies push themselves to try and keep their team alive when they shouldn’t be, to see to amount of damage one man can take and still come back with more energy then he had before. It is astonishing, and ever year new stories are written. Games that go into 3 or 4 overtimes, players going thru 2+ games worth of play, and sometimes doing that multiple times in one series.
So to start the playoffs, we of course have 16 teams-the top 8 from each conference. Here are my predictions for each series and some sort thoughts with it.
Washington Capitals (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8) – Caps in 5. While I think this series could be the shortest one of the playoffs, and is most likely to be a sweep out of any in the East, it has a bit of challenge in it. The Caps are back and better then last year, and are a team that has been getting ready for the playoffs for a few weeks now. But they have still played great. Jose Theodore may be one of the biggest factors in this series. Washington had goalie issues possibly at one point, but Jose has played stellar the 2nd half of the year. As long as he does not fall apart and the Caps do not give the Canadiens #2 ranked PP a lot of chances, the Caps face little trouble from Montreal other then maybe slightly tougher game or two north of the border.
New Jersey Devils (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (7) – New Jersey in…um…6. This is one of the series I have seen a few different predictions on, and more of that has to do with the Flyers then the Devils. We know the Devils have goaltending and defense. We know they have Kovalchuk now, and may have a bit more offense when needed. But it is what the Flyers do that can make it interesting. The Flyers have a defender who many hate, but has had success in the playoffs in his career in Pronger. They have played better to get into the playoffs and have some veteran guys on the team. The Flyers could make it a tough, physical series and push it to 6 or 7 games, or they could just flop and only last 4 or 5. But Brodeur is money, and has been all season. New Jersey will find a way to win the series and I think they could be headed for the East finals, and could be a darkhorse in the East considering everyone wants the Caps or the Pens.
Buffalo Sabres (3) vs. Boston Bruins (6) – Sabres in 6. This one will might be a lot like the Devils/Flyers series. This one should be a little close, but in the end the higher seed will probably prevail on the back of their star goalie. Also Buffalo has a better offense, but has 3 forwards that would normally be in their top 2-3 lines injured. Do not forget though, that Boston has Rask in net, who has been great this season and has taken over the job from Tim Thomas for the most part. But Boston is also missing players, and their 30th ranked offense will not hold up much of an attack. Miller should be able to hold Boston at bay easily, and Buffalo should be able to win in 5 0r 6 games while hopefully getting a couple guys healthy before they have to move on to a tougher team.
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Ottawa Senators (5) – Penguins in 5. The more I think about this series, the less trouble I think the Pens might have. Ottawa is about as much a Jekyll and Hyde team as any of the playoff teams. One game they show up, then next game they look like they should be in the basement of the standings. Plus the Sens again are entering the playoffs with injuries, while Malkin is healthy and looking good and the Pens are hoping to attack the y0ung goalie and streaky defense of Ottawa. Pittsburgh has been streaky themselves at times, but we know what their core can do in the playoffs.
San Jose Sharks (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (8) – Sharks in 5. Yes the Sharks have struggled in the playoffs for years now, but this series is just too easy for them to flop. Next round, easily discussable. But the Sharks are the top team in a crowded West for a reason. They have brought in new defense, skilled veteran players, and are hoping for a different result. They have a goalie advantage, even if Anderson was good at times this year. The Sharks have a line-up of top guys, many of them waiting to prove this team can win in the playoffs. The Avs are a team that has surprised as their youth has performed better then predicted, but is in over their heads and has faltered down the stretch. Sharks advance, but will not prove anything unless they get to the Finals.
Chicago Blackhawks (2) vs. Nashville Predators (7) – B’Hawks in 5. A match-up that does not look too interesting to many, this is a bit deeper then some think. Yes the Blackhawks are my 2nd favorite team and pick to make it to the Finals, but they still do have a slight goalie issue. And while they are groomed and built to make a big run this season, Nashville has a good goalie and good defense. Am I saying that Nashville can win? No, but picking the Hawks in 4 or maybe even 5 should not be as easy as it looks to many people. Nashville played good against Chicago this season and this might be a low scoring series because of having two of the better defensive teams in the West. Niemi or Huet, Chicago just hopes one can hold some consistency and if so then this team is poised for success in the first two rounds at least.
Vancouver Canucks (3) vs. Los Angeles (6) – Los Angeles in 6. Here is my upset for the first round. Los Angeles may be young, but they are very talented and fast. Along with talent in the low to mid 20s, the Kings have Smyth and Williams and mid 20s captain Brown to grind and forecheck. Sure the Canucks have a top goalie, but he has had confidence issues of his own, and has at times not been able to stand on his head in his playoff career. The Canucks defense will have to step up and help a lot in this series, and I like L.A.’s defense more. The key though will be if Quick can start winning in net again, as he bombed the last few weeks after being great for most of 3/4ths of the season. If he can, then I think L.A. can win in 6 or 7, and if they get a lead at any point in the series, it will be interesting to see if Luongo and the Canucks can stand up to being taking apart again.
Phoenix Coyotes (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5) – Wings in 7 games. Man I hate the Red Wings, but I can’t not take them in this series. They are hot coming in, Howard has been amazing the second half of the season and they seem to be coming together. This series could be a low scoring one, as the Coyotes use former Stars coach Dave Tippett‘s defensive game-plan to win many games. Having a Bryzgalov in net, who has been amazing this year, does not help opposing offenses either. But the Red Wings have a just as hot goalie, and are 16-3-2 since the break. Also both teams have a top-10 PK, but the Red Wings also bring a good PP that could be vital in close games. I think this should be a good series for real hockey fans to watch, but the experience and coaching of the Red Wings has shown in the last third of the season and it will get them a win in round one.
There we go, my picks and thoughts on each of the playoffs match-ups! Let me know your picks down in the comments section, and enjoy the greatness sure to unfold in the playoffs. I will be updating a bit on the series every few days, and will make my picks for each round as we get into them. Thanks!