Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NHL First Round Predictions - Eastern Conference

Here are the predictions you really care about, beginning with the most important one of all.

#1 Washington Capitals vs. #8 New York Rangers

The Caps are a tough team to figure out right now. They've been playing a lot better since the trading deadline, when they acquired Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm, and Dennis Wideman. Arnott and Wideman in particular have been tremendous. Problem is, Wideman is out for the first round of the playoffs, and he's not the only Caps player who's under the weather. Mike Green hasn't played since taking a blow to the head against these very Rangers on February 25th (a day which will live in infamy), Tom Poti has been out even longer, and almost every important Washington player has missed at least a game or two over the past few weeks. Hopefully that was just a matter of giving guys rest, but it gives me pause.

The Rangers are without their third-highest scorer Ryan Callahan, and this is a team that could ill-afford to lose any kind of offense. They're young, and they get contributions from a lot of different guys, but they mostly rely on defense, goaltending, and opportunity to win hockey games. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goalies in the East, but he went just 36-32 this season. Could he steal a game? Sure. But not more than one.

Prediction: Capitals in 5

#2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #7 Buffalo Sabres

The sexy pick these days is to count out the Flyers after they stumbled into the playoffs. Did they lose the #1 overall seed? Yes. Did they almost yield the division to the streaking Penguins? Yes. Are they suddenly a crummy team? No.

Buffalo has a few nice pieces, including their all-world goalie Ryan Miller. But Miller hasn't been nearly as dominant this season as he was last year. And while neither of Philly's goalies (Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher) have been tremendous, they both benefit from an extremely physical team in front of them, and a team that loves blocking shots. I just don't see how Buffalo can overcome Philadelphia's depth and physicality.

Prediction: Flyers in 5

#3 Boston Bruins vs. #6 Montreal Canadiens

Carey Price has carried Montreal this season, but this is the same Carey Price who got ousted for Jaroslav Halak in last year's playoffs. He also appeared in 20 more games than he's ever played in before, second only to Cam Ward in games played and goalie minutes. All together, I feel like Price is setting up for a disappointment.

Meanwhile, the Bruins have arguably the NHL's best goalie in Tim Thomas, who led all of hockey in save percentage and goals against average. He was also afforded a good deal of rest by backup Tuukka Rask, and should be 100% ready to go come playoff time. Furthermore, with Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, the Bruins might have the strongest defensive pairing in the Eastern Conference.

I could see half of the games going to overtime, but I'm confident the Bruins will take the series.

Prediction: Bruins in 5

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning

The Penguins definitely miss superstar Sidney Crosby, but they've acquitted themselves nicely of late, winning eight of their last ten regular season games. Of course, their two losses came against the last two playoff teams they faced, including a matchup against the Lightning on March 31st. The reality is that Pittsburgh is a nearly impossible team to figure out right now. Their two noteworthy deadline acquisitions, James Neal and Alex Kovalev, have been either inconsistent or downright disappointing. We know Kovalev can step his game up, but if Neal doesn't, who else scores on this team?

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is one of the easier teams to assess. They're gonna score, probably a lot, and they're going to give you your chances to score, too. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis both registered more than 90 points on the year, but finished just a combined +3. They did, however, finish in the top 10 in both the power play and penalty kill, and led the NHL in shorthanded goals.

Marc-Andre Fleury is a damn fine goalie, and he's got a chance to win this series for the Penguins. They'll need exceptional play from unexceptional players. Dan Bylsma is a good coach, and he just might get his guys to rally. And there's always the chance that Crosby actually does play. If he does, make it five games instead of seven.

Prediction: Penguins in 7

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