It’s a good time to be an NHL fan, isn’t it?
The first-round playoff match-ups (which officially open tonight when the Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals host the N.Y. Rangers) feature plenty of intrigue, including an “Original Six” clash between Boston and Montreal.
Pittsburgh versus Philadelphia is a series expected to bring plenty of scoring and rough stuff while an all-California showdown in the West between Anaheim and San Jose could get nasty, as well.
Here’s my take on how the first round will go.
•#1 Boston Bruins vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens
These “Original Six” rivals meet for a fourth time in the last seven post-seasons, with plenty of added animosity already in tow. The Canadiens have won the past three encounters and 24 of 31 playoff series between the two teams overall.
The Canadiens are heavy underdogs this year, having backed into the final playoff berth in the East, but they can look no further than 2002 as a measuring stick when they shocked the top-seeded Bruins from the eighth spot.
And just last season, the seeds were reversed in the first round as Montreal hung on for a seven-game win. It’s been role reversal this season, with the Bruins as the frontrunners in the East most of the season.
Boston won five of six match-ups between the two teams in the regular-season series, and are a tough squad who pushed the rather soft Canadiens around with ease—most recently in a 5-4 overtime win last Thursday when big Zdeno Chara laid down the law on Mike Komisarek.
If the Canadiens are going to have any chance of an upset, Carey Price is going to have to outduel Tim Thomas between the pipes, and their power play is going to have to capitalize early and often.
Since Mathieu Schneider was acquired from Atlanta, the power play has been much-improved, but fellow power-play quarterback Andrei Markov is a question mark for this series and much of their success will hinge on whether he can return to the lineup in time.
Prediction: Bruins in six.
•#2 Washington Capitals vs. #7 N.Y. Rangers
It’s Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals’ free-wheeling offence versus goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers’ defence-first system.
Washington finished third in the NHL in goals per game, but are a lowly 19th in goals against. By contrast, despite having some big-name weapons, the Rangers are 28th in offence but a solid sixth in goals against.
Washington had the second-best power play in the league while New York replies with the league’s best penalty kill.
Two teams on opposite ends of the spectrum will butt heads in this one, to say the least.
The Caps took three of four from the Rangers during the regular season, but goaltending is a big factor in the playoffs and Lundqvist certainly gives the Rangers the edge in that category over the inconsistent Jose Theodore.
It’s a classic offence versus defence, and the Rangers’ stingy style should keep things close, but the Capitals are just too talented to be denied in the opening round this year.
Prediction: Capitals in seven.
•#3 New Jersey Devils vs. #6 Carolina Hurricanes
This is a tough one to predict simply because the Hurricanes have been the better team lately while the Devils have backed their way into the playoffs.
Although the ’Canes lost their final two games of the season, they finished on a 13-3-2 run and shot up the standings to steal a playoff spot.
The Devils, meanwhile, slumped badly after Martin Brodeur set the NHL record for wins in late March, but did manage to close out the season with five wins in their last six outings.
If the Devils have righted the ship, they are the superior team, but the Hurricanes have been a much-improved squad since re-acquiring Erik Cole from Edmonton at the trade deadline to play alongside Thunder Bay’s Eric Staal.
It’s an intriguing series that could go the distance, and the Hurricanes won the last meeting between the two teams during their run to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006.
Prediction: Devils in six.
•#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
These two teams met in the conference final a year ago, with the Penguins taking it in five games.
Despite that recent history, there are several reasons to suggest this series will be a whole lot closer, most notably the improved health of the Flyers from that team of a year ago.
The team from the City of Brotherly Love were without top defencemen Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn for much of that series a year ago, and shifty forward Simon Gagne had missed nearly the entire season with a concussion.
All three of those players give a big boost to an already scary offensive squad that includes 46-goal man Jeff Carter and two-way centre Mike Richards of Kenora.
Philadelphia blew a chance at home-ice advantage in this series after a 4-3 loss to the Rangers in their regular-season finale on Sunday, and still have some question marks on defence and in goal with Martin Biron.
The Penguins, meanwhile, lost Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone—two key cogs during last year’s run to the Stanley Cup final—and struggled much of the season trying to fill their large skates.
Since the mid-season firing of Michel Therrien and hiring of Dan Bylsa, the Penguins are a red-hot 18-3-4. Much of that success can be attributed to the acquisitions of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin at the trade deadline, helping complement the scoring machines of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
But the return of all-star defenceman Sergei Gonchar from a long-term injury has helped stem the tide, as well.
Prediction: Flyers in seven.
•#1 San Jose vs. #8 Anaheim Ducks
You have to feel sorry for the Sharks. Despite a stellar regular season which saw them lead the league in points nearly wire-to-wire, they are “rewarded” with a first-round match-up with the Ducks.
Anaheim’s roster carries a ton of playoff pedigree, including the duo of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer on defence, and they also happened to go 10-2-1 during the stretch run to claim a playoff spot.
The last time these two teams met, back on April 5, the game ended with five misconducts being handed out.
These teams don’t like each other and the Sharks still hold the weight of playoff disappointments that have haunted them for more than a decade. The Ducks, on the other hand, simply can point to their 2007 Stanley Cup rings as an intimidating factor.
San Jose could be ripe for the picking in the opening round until they get some confidence, but Anaheim’s undisciplined play has been their undoing in the past and that could ruin their chances at an upset.
The Sharks have too many weapons, and if given too many opportunities with the man-advantage, they’ll more than likely convert on enough of them to win four games.
Prediction: Sharks in seven.
•#2 Detroit Red Wings vs. #7 Columbus Blue Jackets
This could be a potential upset, folks.
Considering the Red Wings’ inconsistent play of late and the constant questions about their goaltending, this series has all the makings of an shocker.
Red Wings’ goalie Chris Osgood has proved his doubters wrong in the past, but the Blue Jackets are hungry in their first-ever playoff appearance and have the decided edge in goal with super rookie Steve Mason tending the pipes.
That all being said, the Red Wings offence is deeper than the Grand Canyon and a Nicklas Lidstrom-led defence corps is nothing to scoff at, either.
I just can’t bring myself to bet against the defending champs.
Prediction: Wings in six.
•#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 St. Louis Blues
One thing’s for sure: Either the Blues or Canucks will be cooling off this week.
The Blues went from playoff afterthought to red-hot, compiling a 21-7-6 record over the last two-plus months of the season. Unfortunately for them, they meet a Canucks’ team that has gone a scorching 23-7-2 over that same stretch.
Both teams have the necessary components needed to win in the playoffs, with good goaltending and solid special teams’ play. Roberto Luongo needs no introduction in goal for the Canucks while Chris Mason has been a pleasant surprise since taking over in net from Manny Legace at mid-season.
The Blues should be happy having just made it to this point considering major injuries to Erik Johnson, Eric Brewer, and star Paul Kariya derailed all three of their seasons. A big reason for the Blues’ success has been the play of rookie T.J. Oshie, who earned rookie-of-the-month honours in March with 13 points.
Former Winnipeg Jet Keith Tkachuk has played with more heart and urgency down the stretch, and is looking to remove the playoff under-achiever label from his résumé in maybe his last kick at the can.
This series should be another close one, but Luongo will be the difference-maker.
Prediction: Canucks in six.
•#4 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #5 Calgary Flames
Oh, how the Flames have fallen.
At the trade deadline, many experts pointed to Calgary as a potential Stanley Cup contender based on their additions of Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold to complement their wealth of playoff experience, toughness, and offensive pizzazz.
But the Flames have spiraled down the standings since—coughing up a huge lead and allowing the Canucks to take the Northwest Division crown—and no longer have home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
At the same time six weeks ago, many experts said the Blackhawks’ inexperience had caught up to them and they’d be easy pickings for any first-round opponent they ran into. But the young Hawks, including Fort Frances-raised Duncan Keith, have turned things around, and Nikolai Khabibulin has risen to the occasion to claim the No. 1 starting job in net away from Cristobal Huet.
The Hawks went 6-0-1 in April, and are frothing at the mouth in their first playoff appearance since 2002.
This match-up features the veteran savvy of the Flames against the youthful exuberance of the Hawks—and it’s somewhat of a toss up no matter how you swing it.
That said, it’s hard to just flip the switch and be good again, so the Flames will be the decided underdogs in this one.
Prediction: Hawks in five.