The 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs begin tonight, and I couldn’t be more excited. My Anaheim Ducks have not only qualified, but jumped up to the fourth seed in the Western Conference. First the first time in history, all three California teams are in the postseason. The Vancouver Canucks are on a roll, and have an intense matchup in the first round. On the East coast, we’ve got perhaps the most bitter rivals facing each other as Boston takes on Montreal. Pittsburgh faces Tampa Bay in what could be a high-scoring shootout of a series. And Washington looks to finally make a serious Cup run. Who will end up with Lord Stanley’s Cup? Here are my predictions for the first round…
1. Vancouver Canucks vs 8. Chicago Blackhawks
I don’t think anyone wants to face the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round of the playoffs. Especially Vancouver, who has a history of being knocked out by the Blackhawks. These are two very deep teams on both sides of the puck, and I think the difference in this series might come down to goaltending. Corey Crawford has been excellent in his first full season with the Hawks, but experience matters in the playoffs. Roberto Luongo has had an incredible season for the Canucks this year, and it’s time for him to shed his playoff demons. The Sedin twins are playing better than Kane and Toews, and Ryan Kesler is having a breakout year to give the Canucks an offensive advantage. On defense, Chicago has an edge from a scoring standpoint, but Vancouver has a better shutdown group. And as they say, defense wins championships.
2. San Jose Sharks vs 7. Los Angeles Kings
The Sharks are perennial contenders (and perennial floppers) that have last year’s Stanley Cup-winning goalie on their team. They’ve got Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, Dan Boyle. Pretty scary. Can they turn around their playoff woes this year? Their first-round matchup could be somewhat of a way to ease into the playoffs this year as they face an injury-depleted Kings team. Anze Kopitar (broken ankle) is out until next season, and Justin Williams (wait, who?) hasn’t played in any of the last nine games for the Kings. Williams was having a breakout year before dislocating his shoulder, and now must attempt to play through his injury that has not yet fully healed. Jonathan Quick has been excellent in goal for the Kings, but I don’t think it will be enough without the Kings’ top two offensive threats.
3. Detroit Red Wings vs 6. Phoenix Coyotes
The team that always wins vs the team that’s struggling to stay a team. This is an interesting rematch of last year’s first round series, in which Phoenix put up a tough fight. If Ilya Bryzgalov and Shane Doan can repeat their heroic performances, they could once again challenge the mighty Red Wings. However, I don’t think their depth can touch Detroit’s, even without Henrik Zetterberg at the start of the series. And let’s not even talk about playoff experience. Advantage: Detroit, no question.
4. Anaheim Ducks vs 5. Nashville Predators
This is going to be one tight series. Arguably the league’s best offensive line (Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry) faces off against arguably the league’s best defensive pairing (Shea Weber and Ryan Suter). The Predators have one heck of a coach in Barry Trotz, who consistently puts his team in the playoffs without having any star players to work with. The problem is they have never advanced to the second round. Does that change this year? Anaheim has been one of the hottest teams in the league as they have fought for their playoff lives. But Nashville has a player that shoots pucks THROUGH the goal net. This series could go either way, but I’m going to say the Ducks sneak away with a close victory in this series. Oh come on, what did you expect me to say?
Here’s Shea Weber’s blast-through-the-net goal from the 2010 Winter Olympics:
1. Washington Capitals vs 8. New York Rangers
This is one of the most intriguing match ups for me. New York is lucky to be in the playoffs after barely squeaking in, but now that they’re in, they’re a serious threat. Henrik Lundqvist is an all-world goalie with the capability to carry his team all the way by himself. And did I mention he’s having a great season? His 11 shutouts led the league this season. However, Ryan Callahan’s broken ankle seriously hurts an offense that struggles to stay consistent. The Rangers’ hard-hitting, hard-working style is geared for playoff success, but I don’t think it will be enough against a reformed Capitals team. The Caps are more focused on defensive, playoff-style hockey. And even with this change in their systems, they still came out as the #1 seed in the East. They’ve got firepower, defense, and two great, young goaltenders. And although Alexander Ovechkin hasn’t had a great year statistically, I have a feeling he can turn it on in an instant.
2. Philadelphia Flyers vs 7. Buffalo Sabres
I’m going to admit I’m basing this one off of paper. Right now, the Sabres are playing great and the Flyers are in free-fall. However, the Flyers have too many good, young players throughout their entire roster. The Sabres have American hero Ryan Miller, Calder-winning giant Tyler Myers (and mini-me Nathan Gerbe), and Austrian superstar Thomas Vanek, but they aren’t nearly as deep. You can’t survive in the playoffs without depth, especially when your opponent throws their best defensemen (and Hellbows) at your top scorers. When Chris Pronger returns? Lights out. I think Philadelphia’s forwards will break down the wall that is Ryan Miller and their defense can cool off the Sabre’s top forwards.
3. Boston Bruins vs 6. Montreal Canadiens
What a series this will be, eh? No, I am not a Canadian. And no, I don’t think the Canadiens will win this series. I would love to see Carey Price carry his team far into the playoffs, but I can’t see Montreal’s diminutive forwards getting past big Zdeno Chara. Boston’s size (and Montreal’s lack thereof) will be a factor in this series, and even if it’s not, Tim Thomas has been playing record-breaking hockey this year. With the new record for Save Percentage in a season, Thomas should be able to take the Bruins far into the playoffs. We’ll see if they can look past last season’s collapse and grow from the experience.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs 5. Tampa Bay Lightning
This is the matchup that Pierce wanted to see happen in the playoffs. Except he didn’t want it in the first round. Both teams play a high-flying style of hockey, so this has the potential to be the most exciting matchup of the first round. Unfortunately we won’t get to see Sidney Crosby (yet?) or Evgeni Malkin, but the list of superstars continues with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury. The Lightning employ an unusual 1-3-1 forecheck that will attempt to trap the Penguins, and it will be interesting to see how the Pens adjust. In terms of matchups, Pittsburgh has a very strong defensive corps, whereas Tampa Bay’s blue line is questionable. The Penguins have been playing inspired hockey without their captain and their Geno, and they look to keep on rolling in the playoffs until Sid returns. And if/when that happens, watch out.