The Playoffs are here!
We provide you with our picks to win each series, highlighting key players to watch in each matchup.
#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Los Angeles – The firepower and depth of the Canucks were the catalysts that returned them to the number one seed once again in the Western Conference. Vancouver barely missed a beat down the stretch, without their leading goal-scorer Daniel Sedin (concussion). He will not dress for the opening game of this series either. Not many other clubs could expect to remain successful with such an asset out of the lineup.
Goaltending will be a focal point in this matchup, as Roberto Luongo will have to exorcise the demons of last year's Cup Final, while minimizing a discussion of any goaltending controversy with Cory Schneider waiting in the wings. At the other end of the ice, Jonathan Quick, who may be the best goalie in the league this year, is the best asset that the Kings have, a goalie who has the rare ability to win games almost by himself.
The Kings need more than Quick in this series and must find a way to overcome a season-long inability to muster adequate offense. Most of their hopes may rest with the play of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, both of whom have underperformed since being acquired in separate deals with Philadelphia.
The Canucks look to have much more proven depth, particularly on defense and should prevail quite easily in this series. Secondary scoring sources such as Ryan Kesler and Chris Higgins, plus the experience of defensemen Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler and Dan Hamhuis should be more than enough to push the Canucks on to the next round.
#2 St Louis vs. #7 San Jose
The Blues will be looking to prove that their surprisingly strong regular season was not a fluke, while the Sharks will be relying on their veteran leadership and playoff experience to gain an early edge.
The Blues commitment to team defense had no equal in the entire NHL as they boasted the lowest goals against average during the regular season. St' Louis has the rare luxury of two goalies at the top of their game, who appear to be interchangeable at this point. Jaroslav Halak, the more experienced of the two will likely start, but this club is equally confident in Brian Elliott.
The Blues match one the Sharks main strengths with their two offensive-minded defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, both of whom are assets in the defensive zone as well. A deep group of productive forwards got a significant boost as both Alex Steen and Andy McDonald returned to active duty late in the regular season after lengthy injury absences. The net result is four forward lines that can chip in with offense while not compromising the club defensively.
San Jose, on the other hand, have been paced by a top heavy offensive, led by Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski. Defensemen Dan Boyle and Brett Burns account for a significant impact on the power play. Apart from this group, Ryan Clowe is the only other significant threat.
The overall edge in team depth makes the Blues a heavy favorite, particularly if they can neutralize the top line of the Sharks.
#3 Phoenix vs. #6 Chicago
The Coyotes fought off the competition to win a tight Pacific Division, thus earning the favorable #3 seed and gain home ice advantage in this first round series. Goalie Mike Smith, who was among the league leaders in wins (38), goals against (2.21), save percentage (.930) and shutouts (8) is clearly the Coyotes team MVP.
Ray Whitney (24), Radim Vrbata (35), and Shane Doan (22) were the only Coyotes to reach the 20-goal mark. The club relied on a tight-checking approach along with their stingy defense to get their best results this season.
The Hawks cruised into the post-season without the services of captain and leader, Jonathan Toews (concussion), who missed the final 22 games of the regular season. He's a game time decision for Game 1 of this series and will otherwise appear in the very near future. With him in the lineup, this veteran core, loaded with playoff experience, figures to be quite explosive.
Defensively, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook remain among the best pairings, for all situations in the league.
If these other parts are in sync, starting goalie Corey Crawford needs only to be ordinary and the Hawks should still have enough to pull a minor upset here.
#4 Nashville vs. #5 Detroit
Much has been written about the goaltender (Pekka Rinne) and top defensive pairing (Shea Weber and Ryan Suter) who form the on-ice cornerstones of the Predators. Depth in these two areas has allowed the club to play a suffocating defensive style and reduces the requirements expected from a relatively ordinary offensive contingent. They will count on recent addition, Alexander Radulov (3g, 4a in nine games), to add some punch to their offense in this series.
Detroit, a fixture in the postseason for 20 straight years, is once again paced by the high-end skill of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, along with the oldest roster in the league. That core, which also includes Nicklas Lidtsrom, Niklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen and Jiri Hudler, continued to churn out win after win again this season.
Jimmy Howard missed a significant portion of the second half of this season, but has evolved into a better than average NHL goalie, figuring to do his part to offset what might otherwise be a big edge for Nashville.
The Preds may finally be ready to make some playoff noise, but you will not count me among those who bet against Detroit. I just can't bring myself to choose against that veteran group. They've been down this road, with long-time success, for a long time.
#1 NY Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa
The Rangers boosted their offense with the off-season addition of Brad Richards, which helped propel this deep squad to the top of the Eastern Conference. He and fellow marquee attraction, Marian Gaborik formed the centerpieces of an improved offense on Broadway. The Rangers will be injecting recently-signed top forward prospect Chris Kreider into their offensive depth for a new look.
The club is still defined by a defensive focus, founded on the consistently outstanding work of Henrik Lundqvist. He has allowed a young defense corps to mature and develop over the last couple of seasons. Now, that group which includes Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto is thriving and is considered another strong element of the club.
The Sens have hopes entering this matchup because of their regular season-success (3-1 vs. NYR this season). Ottawa has surprised most observers as their veteran core, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips and Chris Neil has meshed well with youngsters Eric Karlsson, Eric Condra and Colin Greening to produce this unexpected season result for the Sens.
A Ranger club that is primed for an extended playoff run overmatches that magic, under the direction of coach Paul McLean.
#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington
The defending champs cruised to the #2 seed in the East on the basis of the same formula that won them the Cup last season. Strong goaltending from Tim Thomas, a tough stingy defense led by Zdeno Chara, with plenty of veteran experience has once again placed the Bruins among the hardest groups to score against.
Couple those assets with a tough, deep offensive group paced by Tyke Seguin and Patrice Bergeron among five forwards with more than 50 points this season and this team once again appears to have no weaknesses. If they are to repeat they will have to do so without Nathan Horton (concussion) who was such a key contributor in last year's postseason run.
Washington will lean heavily on the star players of their roster to put their best foot forward in this set. Alexander Ovechkin has only started to play near his peak level in recent weeks after an ordinary start to his season.
Mike Green is finally back in the lineup after injuries and a late-season suspension curtailed his regular season. He has yet to rediscover his normally high-end offensive productivity.
Similarly, Nicklas Backstrom has only recently returned from a long injury absence (concussion) of his own.
Secondary scoring has failed the Caps for much of this season and no one has underachieved more than the enigmatic Alexander Semin (only 21 goals).
There are too many ifs in the Washington equation to give them much of a chance against the Bruins.
#3 Florida vs. #6 New Jersey
The Panthers are back on the postseason after a 10-year absence, having earned the Southeast Division crown. GM Dale Talon earned marks by acquiring a number of veterans who have not played to their potential in other environments (Tomas Fleishmann and Kris Versteeg) to form a potent first line with long-time Panther Stephen Weiss. Similarly, defenseman Brian Campbell has brought out the best in fellow blueliner Jason Garrison to anchor a potent power play.
Beyond this core, the drop off in talent and support scoring has been significant, only the stellar play of Jose Theodore acting as a saving grace.
The Panthers reward for their surprising return to the playoffs is the veteran group from New Jersey. Martin Brodeur stumbled early on but with the post season on the horizon he dialed up his performance to career norms once again.
Coupling that with the scoring exploits of Ilya Kovalchuk (83 points), Zach Parise (69) and Patrik Elias (78) and the imposing size and secondary scoring from David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky and the added creativity of young Adam Henrique make the Devils an imposing first round foe.
Those assets make the Devils my pick in this pairing.
#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Philadelphia
Perhaps the most intriguing first round set, this series has all the elements for a highly intense competitive level. These teams don't like each other and both are stocked with plenty of recognizable stars.
Pittsburgh has to be emboldened by the successful returns of offensive catalysts Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang. They strengthened a deep team that survived because other high-end players like Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and goalie Marc Andre Fleury performed at the top of their games for much of the season. In addition, loads of secondary scoring came from Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
Philadelphia's offense was paced by Claude Giroux (93 points) and a breakout campaign by Scott Hartnell (67). Daniel Briere (only 49 points) struggled. Key injuries to Chris Pronger (out for the playoffs) and to promising young star James van Riemsdyk have robbed the Flyers of some of their potential. Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn have stepped up their play and production heading into the playoffs and rookie Matt Read (24 goals) has picked up some of the offensive slack.
The much-quoted Ilya Bryzgalov was brought in to solve the Flyers playoff goaltending woes and this will be an important, and very challenging, first test.
There is simply too much talent on the Pittsburgh bench to think that they will bow out this early. Still, this will probably be the most compelling first round series to watch. I know I will be tuning in.
I invite you to send your feedback and you can follow me on Twitter (statsman22). You can also listen to me on Saturday afternoons, at 3:15 p.m. EST on Sirius/XM Radio, on “THE FANTASY DRIVE”, Sirius 210 and XM 87, with host Ray Flowers.