As most of you know, I'm a big fan of the Washington Capitals. Now, I won't lie and say I grew up a hockey fan, because it's just not true. I didn't follow the Caps until they made the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, and I didn't really start to follow the Caps until they made the playoffs again for the first time under Bruce Boudreau. They went on a fantastic run to finish the season, then came back to win their playoff series against the Rangers with three straight wins.
Since then, I've been tuned in for hundreds of Capitals games, and have learned a great deal about the sport. I've also gotten a job working at an ice rink, which guarantees considerable exposure to hockey discussion, as well as actual, real-life hockey.
And this is the best Washington Capitals team I've ever seen.
Well, let me clarify. The President's Trophy winning team from 2009-2010 was an offensive juggernaut, and probably a more impressive team than this one. But I don't think there's been a team in Washington that has appeared more capable of bringing home a Stanley Cup since Alexander Ovechkin came to town. The Capitals this year have been a tough team to play against, and yet they've got as much skill as they ever have (apologies to Alex Semin fans). Evgeny Kuznetsov has really started to grow as a two-way player, and his development has freed up Barry Trotz to mix Backstrom into a now-potent second line. On top of that, the defensive additions of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen have really solidified an already skilled back end, and allowed Mike Green to be deployed more responsibly.
Offense, defense, and Braden Holtby can go toe-to-toe with any goalie in the league in a playoff series (and has). I'm excited for these playoffs to begin.
St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
The Blues have been circling around for a deep playoff run for a few years now. I've always been a huge fan of David Backes, and I think this might be the year they finally break through. Zach Parise is a fantastic two-way player for Minnesota, but I think the Blues are too strong top-to-bottom.
Prediction: Blues in 5
Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Definitely the most interesting first-round matchup out west for me, the Blackhawks are perhaps the most skilled team in hockey if Patrick Kane can come back healthy. Meanwhile, the Predators turned in one of their best seasons in history in their first season without Barry Trotz at the helm. I do think that Nashville is a great squad, but I'm expecting Kane to come back, and if he does, there's too much firepower on Chicago for the Preds to handle.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 7
Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets
This is definitely an interesting pairing. Anaheim boasts three of the most disliked players west of the Mississippi in Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Ryan Kesler, but part of that dislike comes from those guys being really, really good. Perry in particular is a game-changer. The Jets are one of the darlings of the playoffs this year, but I don't think people actually expect them to, you know, win games. Me neither.
Prediction: Ducks in 5
Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames
After Mark Giordano went down, I'll be honest, I didn't think the Flames stood a chance in hell of maintaining a playoff spot. They fought tooth and nail down to the wire, though, and managed to hold off the defending champion L.A. Kings in securing a playoff berth. They actually had the best point differential in the Pacific Division, which includes these same Canucks. I don't expect the Flames to go deep into the playoffs, but I think Vancouver is primed for being upset...that they lose!
Prediction: Flames in 7
Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators
Montreal had a great season, and their reward is a first-round matchup with the hottest team in these playoffs. It's a fair bet that Andrew Hammond won't be able to keep up his near-perfect performance of the past month, but the Senators have nothing to lose here. They've been playing with renegade confidence, and Montreal's top scorer Max Pacioretty is day-to-day with a head injury. It's hockey, so Pacioretty will probably play, but will he be the same player? Tough to say. In the end, I'll favor the team with Carey Price, but this is going to be a scrap.
Prediction: Canadiens in 7
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
People are calling this the Yzerman series, but these Red Wings are a long way from the transcendent squads that Stevie Y used to captain. I believe that Pavel Datsyuk is one of the greatest players of this generation, but he's always dinged up. And the Lightning can roll out two really dangerous lines, one of which includes maybe the best individual scorer in hockey, Steven Stamkos. I expect this to be a well-played series with a ton of skill, but I feel like Tampa's got the edge.
Prediction: Lightning in 6
Now for the two big ones.
New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
This has got to be the most appealing series for the casual sports fan who wants to tune in and see some hockey. You have the best player in the game in Sidney Crosby, maybe the best goalie in the game in Henrik Lundqvist, two storied franchises, and two passionate fan bases. The only problem is that Pittsburgh isn't very good right now. They haven't played a lick of defense since February, and their legitimate scoring threats are limited to their top two lines. It's possible that Marc-Andre Fleury will stand on his head and take a game, or two, or even the series, but the smart money is on the Rangers getting past this round with relative ease.
Prediction: Rangers in 5
Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders
I certainly wasn't pleased with the way the Capitals looked in their final game of the season, a 4-2 loss to the Rangers, but the liquid fire Columbus Blue Jackets did Washington a favor by beating the Isles in their final game as well, to give the Caps home-ice advantage for this series. The Isles are actually a decent matchup for the Caps; while they boast about the same skill level, they're still unproven when it comes to the playoffs, and their defensive corps is more built to score goals than to put the hammer down on opposing forwards. The Caps roll four solid lines, and Jaroslav Halak isn't an elite goaltender. The Capitals should be able to pull this one out.
Prediction: Capitals in 6
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