It’s Canada’s favourite time of year once again. The real chase for the Cup gets underway tonight as sixteen teams set off in pursuit of Lord Stanley’s chalice. Today, I break down the eight opening round best-of-seven series and attempt to match wits with sports media pundits and psychic animals alike as I attempt to pick the series winners.
#1 Washington Capitals vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens (TV: TSN, Versus)
Well, they made it back to the playoffs but I have no idea how they did it. About half of the Habs from last year’s team are gone but the goalies are still there. However, this year, it looks like it’s Jaro Halak’s team to steer instead of Carey Price. Washington kept the same core as in 2009 but padded out the lineup and gave Simeon Varlamov a bigger role en route to the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy. The Caps march in the post-season won’t be determined by their goaltending as the other team’s goaltending. Washington can smother a team with relentless offence. It’ll take a superior backstopping effort to stop the Caps. Halak was nothing short of stellar at the Olympics but he isn’t a miracle worker.
Prediction: Washington in 4
#2 New Jersey Devils vs. #7 Philadelphia Flyers (TV: TSN)
While everyone will be talking about the Sharks playoff woes, let’s not overlook the Devils’ troubles. I can’t remember the last time that the Devils won a playoff series. Their big trade for Ilya Kovalchuk was supposed to bring the offence but it hasn’t made a noticeable difference. The interesting thing about this series is that the Flyers dominated the season series between the two teams. I can’t figure out how they could but they did. The Flyers have no goaltending and even less discipline. However, they can play defence and their offence is a hell of a lot more dangerous than the Devils. Even with Brian Boucher in goal and the fact that they just barely snuck into the playoffs, it’ll be hard to pick against the Flyers in this one.
Prediction: Philadelphia in 7
#3 Buffalo Sabres vs. #6 Boston Bruins (TV: CBC, Versus)
Neither of these teams are here because of their offence or defense. It’s all about the goalies when the Bruins and Sabres meet. Ryan Miller has spent the season making a case for why he could win the Hart (MVP) and Vezina (Best Goalie) trophies. He’s been the first, second, and third stars for the Sabres all season long. There’s some offence here (considerably more than that Boston) but not enough to make a difference in the series. Tuukka Rask is between the other set of pipes. The former Maple Leafs prospect (jury is still out on whether trading him for Raycroft is worse than the Kessel trade) has taken over the top job from 2009 Vezina winner Tim Thomas. That says something about how both of them have played this year. Unlike the Sabres, the Bruins have absolutely no offence. That’s why I’m picking them. I didn’t think they had offence heading into the 2009 playoffs but they made their way comfortably past Montreal. This is my upset special for the first round. Rask will carry the day and Boston will squeeze this one out.
Prediction: Boston in 7
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Ottawa Senators (TV: CBC, Versus)
It’s been an up and down year for the defending Stanley Cup champs. Injuries up and down the lineup have shown the depth in the organization by nearly winning the Atlantic Division. Missing out on the divisional crown isn’t an indictment of the team suffering a championship hangover, however. On the flip side, the Senators were a lost cause last year. Their resurgence to the playoffs is nothing short of miraculous and I don’t think it has anything to do with the work of GM Bryan Murray (We’re only related if his boys win the series). Cory Clouston won’t win Coach of the Year but he’s done good work with a team traded its star player at the start of the year. Actually breaking down this matchup, the advantages at forward, defence and goalie lie clearly with Pittsburgh. Add in the experience and the Pens would have to field the AHL team to lose this one.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 5
#1 San Jose Sharks vs. #8 Colorado Avalanche (TV: CBC, Versus)
The Sharks are back in first again but will bad memories of playoffs past haunt them. That’s the only thing that people will talk about when it comes to the Sharks this post-season. Yes, they have loads of firepower. Yes, they have good goaltending. Yes, they have a great coach. But can all of those come together in the playoffs? If the Olympics taught us anything, the Sharks can’t rely on any of their stars in crunch time. The question then becomes how the Avs will do. This is a team with minimal playoff experience. But maybe no experience is better than the experience that San Jose has had in recent years. The Avs offence can match pace with the Sharks but goaltending all depends on which Evgeni Nabakov shows up. I think the Sharks will have enough to pull off the win but I don’t think it will be at all decisive.
Prediction: San Jose in 6
#2 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #7 Nashville Predators (TV: TSN, Versus)
This one will be an interesting matchup simply because of the goaltending quandary that’s going on in Chicago. Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi split the time between the pipes for the Hawks. The only question is which will start the first game. The smart money would be on the experience Huet but like I said with Washington last year, it’ll be a matter of time before the kid takes over. However, goaltending will be the smallest factor in determining this series for Chicago. They have a high-powered offence and solid defence. They should absolutely demolish the Preds. Short of a Pekka Rinne miracle, this one will be over quick. The only question is four or five.
Prediction: Chicago in 4
#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 Los Angeles Kings (TV: CBC,Versus)
The Canuckleheads are my favourite to win the West for one simple reason: Roberto Luongo. Sure, the Sedins and Burrows can put the puck in the net with the best that LA can offer but its their goaltending that will carry them. People said that Bobby Lu choked during the 2009 playoffs but I say that one game does not ruin a whole post-season (even if that was a game seven). He also looked plenty solid behind an occasionally scrambly Canadian defence in Vancouver at the Olympics. I find it hard to doubt Lu’s big game credentials. The big advantage that the Kings have is their defence. They have some good two way players and a good core of solid young blueliners. I couldn’t name one star defenseman on the Canucks. I’d also give the power play edge to the Kings but I’d say that Vancouver is superior enough 5-on-5 to have the edge.
Prediction: Canucks in 5
#4 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings (TV: TSN, Versus, NBC)
Last summer, I don’t think anyone could have expected that Phoenix would be in the playoffs, let alone with home ice advantage. Quite frankly, I’m shocked there’s still a team in Phoenix this season. Anyway, this team may have all sorts of young players that were early draft picks but there is only one star on this team: Ilya Bryzgalov. The Coyotes gave up the fewest goals against of any Western Conference team this season and that’s all Bryzgalov. The team’s fate will rest on how their goaltender deals with Detroit’s offensive onslaught. The Wings cut it close this season. Injuries hampered them all year long and it wasn’t until after the Olympic break that they had most of their stars back. They’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league since the break. Combine that with their playoff experience and it’ll be hard for the young Yotes to keep up with the twice defending Western Conference champs.
Prediction: Detroit in 6