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By UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer, Mike Ivcic
Hockey’s second season is here, and the best development of the entire postseason is that every game will televised in its entirety in all U.S. markets. How great is that? You can catch every shot, every save, and every overtime of every game. There’s nothing better than that for the greatest postseason of any sport. So pull up a chair and let’s take a look at each and every first round series.
1) New York Rangers vs 8) Ottawa Senators
The Rangers captured the top overall seed in the East by dominating the conference virtually the entire season, while Ottawa slumped to the finish and wound up coughing up a chance at the six seed to fall all the way to eighth. The Senators are probably the “happy-to-be-here” bunch of the 16 playoff teams, as no one really expected this club to reach the postseason. Meanwhile New York will have all of the pressure focused squarely on them, which I think will lead to at least a win or two for Ottawa. But Ryan Calahan and Marian Gaborik are playing at such a high level, and Henrik Lundqvist might be the best goaltender in the game right now, so it would be the biggest shocker of the first round to see the Rangers fail to advance.
Pick: New York 4, Ottawa 1
2) Boston Bruins vs 7) Washington Capitals
If you haven’t heard, the Bruins are the defending champions. Beyond that, there actually isn’t a whole lot here to think that Boston should win this series besides the “they know what it takes to win” argument. Sure, the Capitals have had their postseason failures in recent years (2-4 in playoff series last 4 years) but they’re playing better hockey than any team in the East not named the Penguins. Nicklas Backstrom returned for the final four games, Alexander Ovechkin started to play like the Ovechkin of old, and the Caps won three of the four meetings with Boston this year. The one big advantage for the Bruins is Tim Thomas, as Washington will be left with Braden Holtby in net after injuries to Michael Neuvirth and Thomas Vokoun. Will that be enough? I’m going with no.
Pick: Washington 4, Boston 2
3) Florida Panthers vs 6) New Jersey Devils
Like most hockey fans, I assumed after last season that Martin Brodeur was finished, and with him any relevancy for the Devils as a franchise. Instead New Jersey rebounded as a virtual afterthought in the Atlantic Division behind the Rangers, Penguins, and Flyers to become a legitimate playoff sleeper. They won’t have home ice, though, as the Panthers captured their first-ever division title and first playoff berth since 2000. Outside of their run to the Cup finals in 1996, Florida has never won a playoff series, so it’s advantage Devils in this one. Florida is a wonderful story, but there simply isn’t a defensive combination that will be able to stop Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuck, and Patrik Elias â if they are, indeed, used as a line â in this series.
Pick: New Jersey 4, Florida 2
4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs 5) Philadelphia Flyers
Hockey fans, lock your attention onto this one. The Keystone state battle will be renewed for at least another six games as the Penguins and Flyers â who just two weeks ago saw their coaches standing on their benches yelling at east other â meet in a conference finals-type atmosphere. Despite a boatload of talent with the likes of Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, Scott Hartnell, and Danny Briere, to name a few, the Flyers hopes rest solely on the butterfly shoulders of Ilya Brzygalov in net. If he can keep the games within a goal, Philadelphia can use their confidence and clutch play to possibly earn the series victory. That’s no small task, though, with MVP-candidate Evgeni Malkin playing better than anyone in the game and Sidney Crosby rounding into shape. Marc-Andre Fleury has won a Cup before, as well, so it’s not as if Pittsburgh’s goaltending is shaky. The winner here will have earned it, but it could be such a draining series that it prevents the advancing team from making a run much beyond the next round.
Pick: Pittsburgh 4, Philadelphia 3
1) Vancouver Canucks vs 8) Los Angeles Kings
Unbeknownst to most of the NHL, the Canucks managed to overcome the Stanley Cup hangover and capture the President’s Trophy, so once again the road to the Cup goes through the far northwest. Roberto Luongo is still the key, but if Daniel Sedin isn’t playing at full strength, it won’t be Luongo’s fault if Vancouver is upended at some point before the finals. Could it be the Kings that pull it off? From Carter to Kopitar to Richards, they certainly have plenty of offensive capabilities, but it’s been a season-long struggle to actually put the puck in the net for this team. Thus, any hopes for L.A. rests on the shoulders of Jonathon Quick. I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see the Kings advance here â they were playing rather well down the stretch before a home-and-home sweep at the hands of the Sharks to end the year â but Vancouver is just too talented for this L.A. squad.
Pick: Vancouver 4, Los Angeles 2
2) St. Louis Blues vs 7) San Jose Sharks
Bryan Elliott led the Blues into uncharted territory for this young team, and now they get a team that has suffered a long list of postseason heartbreaks. I still find it hard to believe that St. Louis managed to get into this position â I thought this would be a young, feisty team that could possibly contend for a playoff spot, but instead they rocketed to the top of arguably the toughest division in the game. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and company still have the talent, though, and Antti Niemi is just two years removed from winning a Stanley Cup with Chicago, so the experience definitely favors the Sharks, but is it good experience? And will it help or hurt Todd McClellan’s team? Those are the questions that the unburdened Blues are hoping are answered in the negative, but this might wind up being nothing more than a learning experience for St. Louis.
Pick: San Jose 4, St. Louis 3
3) Phoenix Coyotes vs 6) Chicago Blackhawks
Despite what the Chicago coaches and players said about not winning in regulation against Detroit in the final game of the year, they wound up with the better end of the deal in drawing Phoenix instead of Nashville. They weren’t getting home ice anyway, so now Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp get the chance to play a weaker Coyotes team. The problem is that Corey Crawford isn’t as good as Mike Smith, so Phoenix actually has the edge in the biggest head-to-head category. If Shane Doan â fresh off a three-game suspension â is able to play at his peak level and Jonathan Toews isn’t, that only provides another notch in the Coyotes category, and should wind up making for a short postseason trip for Chicago.
Pick: Phoenix 4, Chicago 2
4) Nashville Predators vs 5) Detroit Red Wings
And then there’s this, which, with all due respect to the state of Pennsylvania, is my favorite matchup of the season. An interesting subplot this entire season was what Nashville planned to do with free-agent-to-be Shea Weber, one of the top defensemen in the game. The Predators decided to hold onto such a tremendous player and make a run at a Cup now, and to do so they’ll have to beat the best organization in the game over the past two decades. The Red Wings can score, shut down other teams, and excel in either aspect of special teams â all with the best coaching staff in the game. The lone question mark is Jimmy Howard, who will have to raise his game to another level in order to win the series. Why? Because Pekka Rinne is at that level, and despite all of Detroit’s strengths, goaltending rules the day â and the Predators will rule this series.
Pick: Nashville 4, Detroit 3
For fun, let’s play out my first round picks to see how the rest of the playoffs would shape up:
1) New York Rangers over 7) Washington Capitals
4) Pittsburgh Penguins over 6) New Jersey Devils
1) New York Rangers over 4) Pittsburgh Penguins
1) Vancouver Canucks over 7) San Jose Sharks
4) Nashville Predators over 3) Phoenix Coyotes
4) Nashville Predators over 1) Vancouver Canucks
Stanley Cup Finals
New York Rangers over Nashville Predators
Sure, it’s not what NBC and the NHL might be hoping for, but at least they get an Original Six team in the continent’s largest city in the world’s most famous arenaâ¦ and Carrie Underwood’s husband. It’s a win-win!
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