The Stanley Cup playoffs are beginning tonight. The Western Conference Playoffs feature some interesting match-ups, including a few re-matches from last year. Onto the predictions:
#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Chicago Blackhawks
Don't let the standings fool you, there is a 2-point gap between #4 and #8 in the West, so the Chicago Blackhawks are much more dangerous than they look. The Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks seem almost too perfect, with top-notch offense and defense. They have the unfortunate task of trying to defeat last season's Stanley Cup champions, the same team that has knocked them out of the playoffs in the last two seasons. While the Canucks have the apparent advantage, they do not have the clutch ability of the battle-hardened Blackhawks, who have made a habit of winning when they need to. While the Blackhawks are finally starting to get healthy, the Canucks are falling apart a bit. The Canucks haven't had much to play for in a while, so they will stumble out of the gate and won't recover.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 7
#2 San Jose Sharks vs. #7 Los Angeles Kings
The Sharks seem to get pretty deep into the playoffs every year, and now they have the Stanley Cup-winning goalie from last year to go along with a balanced team. The Kings recently suffered injuries to their top-2 scorers, too. While the Kings are resilient, they won't have the scoring talent to beat the Sharks.
Prediction: Sharks in 5
#3 Detroit Red Wings vs. #6 Phoenix Coyotes
It's deja-vu all over again. The Coyotes have to face the formidable Red Wings in the first round again, but this time the Red Wings are without leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg. Once again, the Coyotes rely on a strong goalie and defense while getting offense by committee, but they are a stronger team than last year. The Wings will have to try to advance again with Jimmy Howard who is a decent goalie, but he is no match for Ilya Bryzgalov. It took the Wings 7 to beat the 'Yotes last year, and the balance has shifted this year.
Prediction: Coyotes in 6
#4 Anaheim Ducks vs. #5 Nashville Predators
Corey Perry had an amazing run to end the regular season, hitting 50 goals and vaulting himself into MVP contention. The Ducks' high-flying offense is about to hit a brick wall named Pekka Rinne, who has perhaps the most absurd goaltending numbers in the NHL. The Predators will shut down the Ducks offense and will be able to do just enough damage against stop-gap goalie Dan Ellis to squeak by. That's not to say it will be easy.
Prediction: Preds in 7
Onto the East
#1 Washington Capitals vs. #8 New York Rangers
No point making a reasoned analysis of the Caps, I'll just say Caps in 5 like I always do.
#2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #7 Buffalo Sabres
This is an interesting one, two very good teams with a lot of high strength areas and gaping holes. The Sabres had just enough talent to get into the playoffs and are now losing players to injury. The Flyers also have key injuries, but they are starting to get healthy. The Sabres' strength is goaltending while the Flyers' strength is neutralizing good goaltending. The Flyers' goalie situation isn't good, but they'll be well-rested at least. The Flyers won't make the Cup Final again this year, but they're not losing now.
Flyers in 6
#3 Boston Bruins vs. #6 Montreal Canadiens
It's a good thing this isn't Wimbledon where you have to win by two games, because this one is going 7. In the biggest grudge-match of playoffs, these two teams both have enough talent to scare you and enough emotion to close the other team out. There's no easy way of predicting a coin toss, so I'll just have to do it with style.
Canadiens in 7
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Bottom line: No Crosby, no advancing. Not against this team. The Lightning have too much offense for the Penguins to match with only one top center on the ice. Jordan Staal is an excellent player, and Bylsma is a great coach, but a 2-line team like Tampa is going to eventually make the Pittsburgh offense moot while clutch goalie Dwayne Roloson will make life difficult for what offense the Pens still have.
Lightning in 6