By Dan Falloon, sports reporter
The NHL playoffs start tonight, so it’s time for picks in all eight opening-round series.
#1 Washington vs. #8 Montreal
It’s fitting that both teams wear red since there should be red lights a-plenty in this showdown.
The record shows the floundering Habs were 2-1-1 against the President’s Trophy-winning Capitals this season.
Of the 16 playoff teams, Washington’s 233 goals allowed ranked them tied for 13th with Colorado. Only the Penguins (237) and Senators (238) saw their twine bulge more often.
However, the Capitals also scored 85 more goals than they allowed—easily leading the league with 318 tallies.
With offensive dynamos Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Mike Knuble (who scored 29 goals, many of them from crashing the crease, at age 37), it’s hard not to give the edge to the Caps.
And if (big if) former Habs’ goalie Jose Theodore, who hasn’t lost in regulation time since Jan. 12 (20-0-3 over that span) can keep it together, the Caps should be a lock to advance to the second round.
That’s not to say Jaroslav Halak won’t throw down a goaltending gauntlet, or first-liners Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez won’t rediscover the scoring touch they displayed with New Jersey (I’m sure I just lost a bet writing that), but it’s just hard to see happening.
Capitals in five.
#2 New Jersey vs. #7 Philadelphia
I had to talk myself out of picking a Philadelphia upset in this series.
Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Scott Hartnell make for a fearsome trio up front. And if players like Simon Gagne and Daniel Briere kick in some offence, then the Flyers can cause some headaches for the Devil defence.
Looks great! Now who’s playing net?
The flavour of the month (well, again) is Brian Boucher, who helped backstop the Flyers to the Eastern Conference final back in 2000.
Boucher has an uncanny ability to string together shutouts (five in a row in 2004 and two in a row as recently as 2009) but with Ilya Kovalchuk now in tow for New Jersey, these aren’t your dad’s Devils.
Zach Parise and Travis Zajac are young offensive threats alongside him while steady mainstays Brian Rolston, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Patrik Elias have shown they still have something left in the tank.
While Martin Brodeur has become easier to bet against in recent years (Game 7 collapse against Carolina in 2009 and then losing Canadian Olympic gig to Roberto Luongo), it’s hard to bet against him when it’s Boucher, not Luongo, manning the opponent’s net.
Still, for all the talk of great goaltending in several other centres, the overlooked Devils allowed a league-low 191 goals during the regular season.
Devils in six.
#3 Buffalo vs. #6 Boston
Goals were at a premium in Beantown this season, as evidenced by the fact their leading goal-scorer was Marco Sturm with 22—and no player scored more than 52 points.
Losing the under-rated Marc Savard doesn’t help anything, either, and facing likely Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller compounds the problems.
The league’s 29th-ranked offensive team (206 goals—two more than last-ranked Calgary) is shored up by the stingy goaltending of Tuukka Rask, who led the league in both goals against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931).
The Sabres mount a balanced attack as Derek Roy led the team with a modest 69 points. A healthy Tim Connolly stepped up with 65 while Jason Pominville notched 62.
Meanwhile, Thomas Vanek’s 28 goals led the team, and four of those came this past Saturday night against Ottawa.
Buffalo also has a solid back end, with Toni Lydman, Steve Montador, Henrik Tallinder, and Calder Trophy front-runner Tyler Myers.
This is a series that should be closer than it appears at first glance, and whichever lights-out goalie gets dimmest will lead his team to victory.
Call it a hunch, but . . .
Bruins in seven.
#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Ottawa
For the third time in four seasons, the Pens and Sens will meet up in the first round. And in the previous two match-ups, the winner went on to reach the Stanley Cup final.
Kudos to the Senators for putting things together with the Dany Heatley debacle over the summer, and getting their goaltending straight with Brian Elliott after a series of unfortunate injuries left Pascale Leclaire unavailable.
If several key Sens, including Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Milan Michalek, get hot, maybe they can defeat the defending champs.
However, Sidney Crosby: Goal Scorer emerged this season with 51 while sidekick Evgeni Malkin floundered a bit this season, connecting for 77 points after leading the league with 113 a year ago.
And while Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t put up gaudy stats between the pipes, it was enough to keep the Pens in the Eastern Conference hunt—and he should do enough to win Pittsbugh the series.
Penguins in five.
#1 San Jose vs. #8 Colorado
Rumours of Evgeni Nabokov’s decline apparently were exaggerated. The Sharks’ workhorse, who lost three of his first nine decisions after getting shell-shocked by Canada at the Olympics, seems to have gotten his groove back.
Nabokov is 7-1-1 since then. Although he was lit up for five goals in each of those two losses, in the seven wins he allowed two goals or fewer.
Couple that with the offensive hijinks of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley, as well as key contributions from second-liners Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe, and defenceman Dan Boyle.
The Avalanche, meanwhile, were a great story early in the season, but tailed off late. A major part of that was goalie Craig Anderson, who went from 31 starts last season to 70 this year, and has tired over the course of the season.
Anderson is just 3-6-2 in his last 11 games entering the postseason.
Chris Stewart solified himself as a bona fide power forward with 28 goals while Paul Stastny bounched back from a disappointing 2008-09 season with 79 points.
If they continue to progress, the Avs should be right in the thick of the Western Conference next season.
But not this year.
Sharks in five.
#2 Chicago vs. #7 Nashville
Fact: This is the fifth time in sixth seasons that the Predators have punched their ticket to the postseason dance.
Alas, the Little Team That Could just couldn’t in the playoffs, however, bowing out in the first round each time.
And that doesn’t look to change this year.
Nashville is the only Western Conference team that didn’t score more goals than it gave up (225 of each) while Patric Hornqvist and Steve Sullivan (who miraculously played all 82 games) tied for the team lead with 51 points.
For Chicago, Patrick Kane led the charge with 88 points while defenceman Duncan Keith, who got his start with the Fort Frances Minor Hockey system, finished second on the team with 69.
The Hawks boast six 20-goal scorers, and the goaltending tandem of Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi, while not overwhelming, allowed the second-fewest goals in the conference.
However, that was helped by the Hawks allowing the fewest shots per game (25.1)—nearly two a game fewer than second-place New Jersey.
Hawks in six.
#3 Vancouver vs. #6 Los Angeles
The Kings are making a return to the postseason for the first time since 2001-02, and are looking to advance past the first round for just the second time since making the Stanley Cup final back in 1993.
But the Vancouver Canucks, who just can’t seem to get any respect, stand in the way.
Like Chicago, the Canucks have six 20-goal scorers, including Art Ross Trophy winner Henrik Sedin. But underachievement seems to hang over Vancouver, especially as Roberto Luongo was shelled in last year’s semi-final loss to Chicago.
Los Angeles is a mix of Colorado and Nashville—savvy youngsters and gritty veterans—but that doesn’t mean their fate is any brighter.
Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth, and Dustin Brown should provide fireworks, but like Anderson in Colorado, Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick might be buckling under the weight of being a workhorse.
Quick hasn’t won in his last eight appearances, and only recorded a save percentage over .900 in two of those outings.
Canucks in five.
#4 Phoenix vs. #5 Detroit
If the Phoenix Coyotes win the Stanley Cup, there will be a Hollywood movie made about them, no doubt.
But before Disney checks Martin Scorsese’s availability, there’s still the two-time defending conference champs in the way.
Sure, Ilya Bryzgalov might be a Vezina winner if he had a bit more name-recognition, but aside from Shane Doan and perhaps a declining Ed Jovanovski, the Coyotes are a scrappy team of spare parts.
Meanwhile, the Wings became the Wings at just the right time, having won eight of 10 entering the playoffs and rocketing from the conference cusp to being in the thick of the race.
Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg each were good for 70 regular-season points while Johan Franzen, limited to 27 regular season games, is at his best in the playoffs.
And with rookie Jimmy Howard proving to be a revelation in goal, the Phoenix feel-good story ends abruptly.
Wings in five.
By Dan Falloon, sports reporter