Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
On Wednesday night, the moment that all hockey fans have been waiting for will finally be upon us. When the puck drops between the Detroit Red Wings and Phoenix Coyotes at Joe Louis Arena, a two-month sprint will be on to grab the most treasured of sports trophies, and the hockey world will certainly be enthralled with some of the great stories that this year’s playoff crop will bring us.
Can the Blackhawks overcome the crippling losses they sustained this off-season and recapture the Stanley Cup? Can the Vancouver Canucks or Washington Capitals overcome their disappointing playoff performances in years past and finally reach the next level? Will Zdeno Chara get arrested when he heads up to Montreal? All of these questions will be answered, but before that first puck drop occurs, here are my predictions for how the NHL playoffs will play out.
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals:
Washington 4, New York 1
Yes, the Capitals did get knocked out in the first round last year, and the Rangers have one of the best goaltenders in these playoffs in Henrik Lundqvist, but the main reason I picked Washington here is that I firmly believe that this team will stop at nothing to prevent a similar fate to the one they experienced last season. I also believe that their second-ranked penalty killing unit will be a huge factor in downing the Blueshirts.
Buffalo 4, Philadelphia 3
The Flyers are one of the deepest teams in this tournament, but the reality is that their top defenseman is under the weather, and they are relying on a rookie goaltender who has looked inconsistent at best this season. You also have to keep in mind their struggles to win games late in the season. Buffalo, on the other hand, was able to finish with a flourish even without stud goaltender Ryan Miller. They have a top-10 offense, and with Miller healthy and in net, I’m going with the Sabres to pull the upset here.
Boston 4, Montreal 2
The Bruins are blessed not only with one of the top defenses in the game, but they also have Tim Thomas in net, and that is a huge boost against a team like Montreal. The Canadiens do counter with great goaltending of their own, but when push comes to shove, the Bruins simply have more weapons than the Habs, so I’m going to go chalk on this series.
Pittsburgh 4, Tampa Bay 2
The Lightning have been one of the best stories in the league this season, and Guy Boucher is getting some serious Adams consideration because of it. The Penguins, however, are an even bigger story, as they somehow managed to stay in the thick of the Atlantic Division race even without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for a huge chunk of the season. With Marc Andre-Fleury in net and a team that has developed some serious chemistry without their two stars, I’m looking for the Penguins to win this series with relative ease.
Western Conference Quarterfinals:
Vancouver 4, Chicago 1
For the first few days after this matchup was consummated, a lot of the talk has been about whether or not the defending champion Blackhawks are in the heads of the Canucks, but that talk is pure nonsense. This Vancouver team has been built for this moment, and I’m looking for Roberto Luongo to finally exorcise his demons against the Hawks as the Canucks will roll in this one.
San Jose 4, Los Angeles 2
Looking at the goaltending matchup, you would have to give a slight advantage to Los Angeles, as Jonathan Quick has had a marvelous year. Antti Niemi does have the playoff experience edge, however, and that could play a big factor here. Also worthy of noting is that the Kings had one of the league’s lowest ranked offenses, and that was before Anze Kopitar went down with an injury. The Kings will put up a good fight, but the Sharks are clicking too well to be stopped right now.
Phoenix 4, Detroit 2
Last year when these two teams met it was a road team-heavy series, with Detroit taking three games at Jobing.com Arena and the Coyotes taking two of three in the Motor City. This time I see things turning out similarly, but it will be the Coyotes who will get revenge on the Wings and derail their Cup hopes. Ilya Bryzgalov is looking primed for a playoff run, and the ‘Yotes have two really solid offensive weapons in Keith Yandle and Shane Doan that the Wings will have to account for. This should be a tremendous series.
Nashville 4, Anaheim 3
Perhaps the most intriguing matchup of the first round will be how well Anaheim’s stud-heavy first line of Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, and Ryan Getzlaf does against Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne. It’s always great to see a tremendous offense go against a good goalie, and this will be the defining conflict in this series. I’m picking the Predators to edge the Ducks, but much like an NCAA tournament 8 vs. 9 game, I wouldn’t be surprised if it went either way.
Eastern Conference Semi-finals
Washington 4, Buffalo 2
The Sabres played very well to get to this point, but Washington is even hotter, and that is likely going to carry over into the playoffs.
Boston 4, Pittsburgh 3
This series would be an absolute slugfest, with both teams boasting similar strengths and weaknesses. I’m going to give the Bruins the slight edge here, but if Pittsburgh can get Sidney Crosby back sometime during these playoffs, that could be a game-changer for them.
Western Conference Semi-finals
Vancouver 4, Phoenix 3
This series would be an incredible one to watch. Two dynamic goaltenders would face off in Luongo and Bryzgalov, and the Coyotes’ defense would be a good opponent for Vancouver’s incredible offense. In the end, the Canucks just have too many weapons for the Coyotes to overcome, and they would win a crucial Game 7 in front of their home fans.
San Jose 4, Nashville 2
The Sharks have a great blend of offense and defense, and that would pose a problem for a Predators’ offense that isn’t exactly stacked with talent. Rinne would keep them in this series, but the Sharks are loaded and would advance.
Eastern Conference Finals:
Boston 4, Washington 2
It’s hard to pick against the Capitals, but if anyone can disarm the Caps’ offense and play strong hockey against their underrated defense, it is the Bruins. This would be a fun series, but I’m picking the B’s to make it to the Cup Finals.
Western Conference Finals:
San Jose 4, Vancouver 3
This was by far the toughest pick I had to make, but I firmly believe that this is the Sharks’ best opportunity to win the Cup. They have the offensive weaponry to match Vancouver, and their defense is better than the Canucks’, especially with the absence of Manny Malhotra. Both of these teams have the tools to make the Finals, but I’m picking San Jose here.
Stanley Cup Finals:
San Jose 4, Boston 2
Picking the Sharks to win the Stanley Cup is usually a fool’s errand, but I really like the way their team is coming together at just the right time of the year. Boston is going to be a tough out for anyone facing them, but when you have a player like Joe Pavelski as your third line center, you are rolling some pretty deep lines. Factor in the incredible noise you would have at the Shark Tank for a Cup Final, and you have a recipe for a Sharks victory.
Conn Smythe Winner: Patrick Marleau
Picking a winner of this award is a complete crapshoot, but I’ll go with Marleau just for the heck of it.