After the Islanders shoot-out victory over the NJ Devils we finally had the full playoff picture. The last few years I’ve had pretty decent luck picking the winners on a hockey list that I’m a part of so I figured this year I’d make my first round predictions a little more public so I can either get all the praise, or all the ridicule – only time will tell.
Buffalo Sabres (1) vs. New York Islanders (8) – I don’t want to sound like a fanboy, but its hard not to after the season that the Sabres have put together. They won the President’s trophy, they led the league in scoring, they have 7 players who have at least 20 goals, and they have a stable netminder. What more could you want in a team? The Isles aren’t without their fair share of talent, but their lines don’t run as deep. And with a goalie called up from the AHL to tend the net it’s going to take a miracle (well actually more like 4 miracles) for the Isles to pull off this upset. Sabres take the series in 5.
New Jersey Devils (2) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (7) – I’ve been reading all over how a lot of pundits are predicting this to be the big upset in the East. Jersey has been struggling through some injuries problems and their offense is less than stellar this season. In fact of all 16 playoff teams Jersey is dead last in total goals scored. They play a very conservative, some would say boring, style of play. Say what you will, even with this being the “new NHL” Jersey does not allow shots on net. When shots do get through there is Martin Brodeur to turn them all away. Despite some quick skating, deadly shooting offense on the part of the Bolts, Brodeur is going to put on a real show and pull the limping Devils offense through the first round. Jersey takes the series in 7.
Atlanta Thrashers (3) vs. New York Rangers (6) – This is the hardest game in the East for me to predict. All season long both these teams stayed under the radar, even when they were playing top notch hockey. Both are teams the hockey writers seem to have skipped over in favor of a lot of teams with big flash. Either of these teams is capable of surprising an opponent so its funny they should meet one another in the first round. The Thrashers made a lot of last minute trades to add some experience and depth to the team. The Rangers spent this season moving away from their traditional habit of acquiring experienced players at the end of their career, instead they acquired several players with a good mix of speed, puck handling, and physical play. All in all they appear to be when of the most balanced teams in the NHL. I think what’s going to win this one is the Rangers ability to keep the space in front of their net clear. They are aggressive in their own end and don’t give you much time to set up a play. The Rangers will take this one in 6.
Ottawa Senators (4) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (5) – This is the series everyone is expecting to be a high scoring spectacle that goes down to the bitter end. Personally, I say get out the brooms because this one is going to be a clean sweep for the Sens. Pittsburgh has only one game plan, get it to Sidney Crosby and let him score. In the regular season, playing a host of different teams its easy to rely on a big gun to carry you through. Will his regular season point dominance translate to big play off numbers? Not with the team the Pens have. Ottawa has the tools to shut down the Crosby line and unless some unsung hero steps up in Pittsburgh they will get dismantled by a deep Ottawa team. Ottawa will be coming at them from every angle. Crosby may be a scoring dynamo, but Ottawa’s Dany Heatly is a scoring dynamo who can jump back on defense and cancel out the man advantage in the blink of an eye. The sheer experience, and hunger to avenge last years second round play off exit is going to make Ottawa a force of nature. The Sens take the series in 4.
Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. Calgary Flames (8) – I’ve heard it said that it should be obvious that the Red Wings are going to walk through the Flames. I’ve heard others say it’s going to be a tight battle with a possible upset. The Wings have a history of being upset – their older cast of characters worn down by a long regular season. I say throw that history right out the window. The Wings are a team built to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. But before you go assuming I’m calling a sweep on this one hold your horses. The Flames, when they play their game, are a tough team to beat. They aren’t going to lay down for anyone. They have a team that will play each and every period with tenacity. They have a goalie who has proven he can face any shooter and come out on top. If it weren’t for their rather streaky nature this would be a tough one to call. But I say Detroit’s experience and poise is going to keep them consistently in the winning side of things. The Red Wings will wrap this series up in 6.
Anaheim Ducks (2) vs. Minnesota Wild (7) – I didn’t expect to see both of these teams in the playoffs let alone playing one another. The Ducks might have lost the Mighty from their title (bye bye Disney affiliation) but they sure haven’t lost a step in their play. They are a tough team to play physically. They have big bodies on defense and up on the offensive line as well. They crash the net, they run through the opposition, and the move bodies all over the ice. The Wild, if they are to win, need to capitalize on every power play chance they are given. They are going to have to get on the board early and then dig in to weather the offensive storm of the Ducks. Still, I think the Ducks physical ability is the X-factor in this contest. The Wild don’t have the speed to counter the hard hitting play of Anaheim. The Ducks take this series in 6.
Vancouver Cannucks (3) vs. Dallas Stars (6) – I have three words for this series: defense, defense, defense. In the high octane NHL of this season these are two teams who apparently missed the goal scoring memos. Both teams play a tight defensive game that capitalizes on the mistakes of their opponents. This probably won’t be the most exciting series to watch for people who like seeing the red light come on. This one is going to be like a chess match with each team waiting to see who makes the first mistake. Expect a lot of low scoring one goal games that are going to be well played right up until the final buzzer. Marty Turco’s playoff experience in net will make all the difference in this closely contested affair. The Stars win this one in 7.
Nashville Predators (4) vs. San Jose Sharks (5) – Wait a second, didn’t I see this one last year? Yup. In 2006 these two teams played each other in the opening round, both in the same playoff positions they are in this year. The Predators play a rough and tumble style of offensive hockey which can yield more penalty minutes than they’d like, especially since the San Jose squad are absolutely stunning with the man advantage. If the Predators can stay out of the box they have a lot of capable players up front who can prove to be quite dangerous. Both teams will be starting netminders who haven’t been playing up to form. Both teams have backup netminders who are more than capable of stepping up if the number one man can’t get the job done. Nashvile is under pressure to do well. In fact rumors are swirling that an early exit from the playoffs could spell the end of the franchise in Nashville with many other markets becoming hockey hungry. Nashville needs this win and every player on the bench knows it. Despite this motivation I keep coming back to their penalty woes and San Jose’s ability to capitalize on them. The Sharks take this one in 6.
So there you have it, my predictions for the first round. We’ll see how close I came after this round when I make my predictions for round two. It all starts this Wednesday night.