Wednesday, April 13, 2011

2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Predictions

Forget March Madness; for my money, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are the most exciting tournament in sports. When it comes to non-stop excitement, nail-biting finishes and unpredictable upsets, it simply can't be beat. While my in-depth look at the Flyers series is coming tomorrow, here are my picks for the first round of the playoffs:

Eastern Conference:
(1) Washington vs. (8) N.Y. Rangers
Washington in 6

It must be pretty rough being a Rangers fan, having to wait until the last game of the season the last two years to find out if your team is making the playoffs. Despite being the 8th seed, the Rangers have by far the better goaltending, meaning they actually have a decent shot at knocking off the always susceptible Capitals. Unfortunately, I think this might finally be the year that the Capitals make that deep playoff run we've been talking about for years.

(2)Philadelphia vs. (7) Buffalo
Philadelphia in 6
It's been pretty shocking to see just how many "experts" are picking the Flyers to get knocked out in the first round. Yes, the Flyers have been playing poorly down the stretch. Yes, it is difficult to just flip the switch now that the playoffs have started. Yes, the Sabres finished the season on a nice little roll. Look past all of that and examine the talent on these two teams and, besides goaltending, the Flyers are the much, much better team. No one in the league can match the tremendous depth of the Flyers, as they legitimately have three scoring lines and arguably the best 6 defensemen in the league if/when Chris Pronger is healthy. The Sabres have a few nice players, like Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford, but I don't see any way they can keep up with the Flyers offense. Sure, they have their problems in net, but if the Flyers simply get average goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, they should win this series.

(3) Boston vs. (6) Montreal
Boston in 5

After taking the year off last year, one of the great Original 6 rivalries is back at it in yet another playoff series. On paper, this matchup doesn't seem that close, with the Bruins having the advantage in nearly every facet of play. With the Bruins also determined to erase the memory of their collapse against the Flyers, I wouldn't count on this being a very long series. Unless, of course, Carey Price steps in and does his best Jaroslav Halak impression and carries the team on another magical run.

(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay in 7

Maybe this is just wishful thinking on the part of this Flyers fan, but the Penguins appear ripe for the picking by the Lightning. With Evgeni Malkin already out for the year and it not sounding like Sidney Crosby will be healthy enough to contribute, the Penguins offense looks incredibly weak. Contrast that with the Lightning, who have tremendous offensive players on the top two lines, and you wonder if the Penguins will be able to keep up. Yes, the Lightning have their holes, like their goaltending (Dwayne Roloson has to be what, like 50?), and their lack of depth, but I think they are going to give the banged up Pens more than they can handle. Of course, if Sidney Crosby is suddenly healthy, everything changes and the Lightning's lack of playoff experience could become an issue.

Western Conference:
(1) Vancouver vs. (8) Chicago
Vancouver in 7

Wow, this one should be fun. With how good the Canucks have been this season, they deserve a much easier first round opponent than the defending champs. Fortunately for Vancouver, this isn't the same Chicago team as last season since they had to jettison the majority of their depth. While the Canucks, like the Capitals, have had their fair share of playoff blunders, they are just too talented to get ousted in the first round. I expect a long, grueling series, but Vancouver's special teams should help them come out on top.

(2) San Jose vs. (7) Los Angeles
San Jose in 5

Even if the Kings had Justin Williams and Anze Kopitar, I'd have a hard time picking them to knock off the Sharks. San Jose actually has some depth this year, something that they haven't had in recent playoff flameouts. While I like the Kings defense, I don't think they have what it takes to shut down the big scorers on the Sharks top line.

(3) Detroit vs. (6) Phoenix
Detroit in 5

In a rematch from last season, I look for a similar result in fewer games. While the Red Wings are getting up there in years, they still have a ton of guys who know what it takes to win in the playoffs, plus they are the only team that can rival the Flyers in forward depth. The Coyotes do have the better goaltender in this series in Ilya Bryzgalov, but the Red Wings are better in every other facet of the game.

(4) Anaheim vs. (5) Nashville
Nashville in 7

I can really go either way in this one. The Ducks have a tremendous first line but not much in the way of depth. Nashville has their usual tremendous defense coupled with a top-notch goalie in Pekka Rinne but not much offense. I'll lean towards the Predators to finally make it out of the first round based solely on Rinne, though I don't feel strongly about it. The Ducks have plenty of experience and could easily make a playoff run this year.

Those are my picks for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Check back tomorrow for a more complete breakdown of the Flyers/Sabres series.

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