The NHL playoffs start on tonight, and the next two months will be filled with fast-paced, hard-hitting, edge-of-the-seat madness that ends with one lucky city welcoming home the most highly coveted trophy in all of sports.
Last spring, Boston was that city as the Bruins captured their first championship since 1972, when players like Bobby Orr and Gerry Cheevers wore black and gold.
Here is a breakdown of each first-round matchup:
New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators
Led by Jack Adams Trophy (coach of the year) candidate and Concord native head coach John Tortorella, the Rangers have applied the same tactics that the Bruins used to win the Cup last season. They play great defense, they block shots, they have a rock-solid goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, and they can fight with anyone. Although fighting is a non-factor in the playoffs, that intangible that they stand up for each other carries over into the postseason. New York has looked good all year, but injuries could take their toll over the course of the next two months.
The Ottawa Senators were the surprise of the Eastern Conference this season. The mix of veteran stars like Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, along with the development of young talent like Erik Karlsson, has made the Sens’ rebuilding process turn around quicker than anyone expected. Even with the window starting to close on Alfredsson’s Hall of Fame career, the future looks bright for professional hockey in Canada’s capital city. In the regular season, the Senators played well against the Rangers, but playoff hockey is a different animal. The Senators are talented, but cannot go toe to toe in a physical game against a powerhouse like New York or Boston or Philadelphia.
Prediction: Rangers win in five games.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings
This series is much more interesting than one would expect a No. 1 vs. No. 8 to be. Vancouver came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup last year before being shut out by Tim Thomas on home ice in Game 7. The Kings have been a team people expect to become a legitimate contender for four or five years now. The Kings led their division with two days left in the season, but are now at the bottom of the playoff ladder looking up. That can be a dangerous place for a good team to be. With lower expectations, some hockey teams start to play more loosely and let their talent do what it is good at. The Canucks still have consistently inconsistent goalie Roberto Luongo, and perennial Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) candidate Ryan Kesler. One half of the Sedin twins is currently out with a concussion, so the best scoring tandem in the league will not be together in the first round.
The Kings counter with 24-year-old Slovenian phenom Anze Kopitar, and best friends Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who were the core of the Philadelphia Flyers team who made a Cup Finals run a couple of years ago. Star goalie Jonathan Quick has had a career year this season. Neither team is particularly physical, but Mike Richards when healthy night be more physical than the entire Canucks roster combined. I see this series going long, and it could go either way depending on which team’s scorers get hot.
Prediction: Kings win in seven games.
Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals
The Bruins used to have the reputation of being a team that would always make the playoffs but never get anywhere once the tournament starts. Last year, the B’s silenced their critics by winning three Game 7s and taking home the Stanley Cup with the third one.
The Caps are still a team with such a reputation, and this year their regular season was a down year by their standards. That almost makes them more dangerous. Russian captain Alexander Ovechkin has had the worst season of his career, and showed up overweight at the start of the season. He has played well the last month of the season, now that nobody expects anything from him. Ovi has impressive playoff numbers, but Washington’s system tends to break down in the playoffs when Ovechkin tries to do too much.
The Bruins, on the other hand, have found success in consistency. They led the league in 20 goal scorers, and are built on solid goaltending and defense. Tim Thomas did not have quite the season he had last year, but then again, neither has anyone else in 15 years. Zdeno Chara is still the defensive force he has been for years, and players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Tyler Seguin continue to get better. All four Bruin lines can provide quality minutes, and they can dictate the pace of the game against anyone. I pick the Bruins to win the series, but the Capitals could still make things interesting.
Prediction: Bruins win in six games.
St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks are the Washington Capitals of the Western Conference. Every year, it seems, they have an incredible regular season with stars Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, and captain Joe Thornton leading the way, but the high-powered team that usually fires on all cylinders disappears once the playoffs start. The fact that they fell to the seventh seed in the West makes them a scarier team to me.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Blues were the surprise team of the Western Conference. Ken Hitchcock is my pick for the Jack Adams Trophy after coaching them from the bottom of the standings to second in the West. St. Louis’ goaltending and defense has been excellent all year, and both Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak have made a good case for themselves to start in the playoffs. The Blues have some trouble scoring, which could be a problem in the playoffs. The Sharks do not have much of an identity this season, but if they turn things on, they could get past the Blues. Regardless of who wins, I do not have enough faith in either team to go much further.
Prediction: Sharks win in seven games.
Florida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils
The Florida Panthers are the worst division champion in the National Hockey League this season. The New Jersey Devils are the fourth-place team in the best division in the National Hockey League. Although the Panthers will have home-ice advantage, it is hardly an advantage as the arena is usually full of empty seats. This would be a very boring series to watch if it were not for Devils captain and United States Olympic hero Zach Parise. He is one of the most exciting players in the NHL, who is playing for a new contract this summer. New Jersey also has a legendary goaltender in Martin Brodeur, who is going to try an capitalize on a chance to win the Stanley Cup one more time before he hangs up the pads. The Devils are a much better team and they could play spoiler to the Rangers in a future round as the Rangers have had trouble scoring on Brodeur this season.
Prediction: Devils win in five games.
Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks
The Phoenix Coyotes have once again made the playoffs, and once again, they are up against a powerhouse from the Central Division. The Chicago Blackhawks are banged up, but are still a deep enough team to beat the Coyotes. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews may not play, but Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa can still provide plenty of scoring. For Phoenix, this tournament may be the last hurrah for captain Shane Doan with the franchise. He is in the last year of his current contract and has been with the franchise since they were still the Winnipeg Jets. With rumors of the team moving again to either Quebec or Seattle, Doan may decide to sign with a more firmly rooted team that gives him a better chance to win the Stanley Cup.
Prediction: Blackhawks win in six games.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
This is the most intriguing matchup of the first round, hands down. The Battle of Pennsylvania between two teams that hate each other never disappoints. In their last regular season matchup, there was an on-ice brawl that almost resulted in the head coaches fighting each other. The Penguins have two of the biggest stars in the league in captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Flyers have a wider array of scorers, with young stars like Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds stepping up big this season. Scott Harnell has also had a career year and gives the team a lot of toughness. The Flyers also broke the hearts of Pittsburgh fans this season by signing former Penguin Stanley Cup heroes Max Talbot and Jaromir Jagr.
Both teams can play physical. Brooks Orpik leads the way with hard hits for the Penguins, while the Flyers have taken a step back in that department with the loss of captain Chris Pronger to a severe concussion. Both teams have streaky goalies with high upside. For Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury was lights out on their way to the 2009 Stanley Cup championship, but struggled in the playoffs the last two seasons. For Philadelphia, Russian goalie Ilya Bryzgalov played well in the regular season after signing a nine-year contract with the Flyers, but has struggled in the playoffs in his career. Both coaches are very intense individuals, and both have their names etched on the Stanley Cup already. This is a series that could go either way, but one thing is for sure: Neither team will make it easy for their opponent, and neither team will quit. I think the Flyers are slightly deeper, but it will ultimately come down to the goalies.
Prediction: Flyers win in seven games.
Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings
Nashville is a team that has been gradually getting better each year, while Detroit is a team that has been a consistent playoff team for nearly 20 years. The Red Wings are the oldest team in the league, with most of their players over the age of 30. Nicklas Lidstrom is still one of the five best defensmen in the league, even at his advanced age. The Predators have a great defenseman of their own in Shea Weber. Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk is the most exciting player to watch any given night.
As a Bruins fan, the best way to describe him is if you combine the offensive prowess of David Krejci and the defensive prowess of Patrice Bergeron and then make them both better, you get Pavel Datsyuk. Nashville has the goalie advantage in the series. Detroit’s Jimmy Howard had a good year, but Nashville’s Pekka Rinne is a better player. Both teams have great coaches in Mike Babcock, who has already led the Wings to a Stanley Cup and came within a game of a second, and Barry Trotz, who has patiently led the Predators franchise from the very beginning. The Red Wings will probably win, but there is a chance that they are finally too old to win it all.
Prediction: Red Wings win in seven games.