2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Preview

The best two months of the year are upon us. I will quickly post a winner in each of the eight first round matchups. A quick theme for these picks: a strong defense usually trumps a strong offense, but against weaker defenses, good offenses should prevail.

Western Conference
1) Vancouver Canucks vs. 8) Chicago Blackhawks (Vancouver in 5)
True, Chicago has eliminated Vancouver in the playoffs in each of the last two years. However, these Blackhawks do not have nearly the same depth as those previous Chicago teams, and Vancouver has been firing on all cylinders the entire season. Third time is definitely the charm for Vancouver.

2) San Jose Sharks vs. 7) Los Angeles Kings (San Jose in 6)
San Jose was one of the hottest teams in the second half of the season, and while San Jose has pulled that stunt before only to fail miserably in the postseason, the Kings are heading into the playoffs without arguably their best player in Anze Kopitar. Jonathan Quick can and probably will steal a game or two for the Kings but I do think the Sharks will prevail in the end.

3) Detroit Red Wings vs. 6) Phoenix Coyotes (Phoenix in 7)
A rematch of their first round meeting in 2010, both teams enter the postseason on a bit of a slide. More importantly, Detroit is banged up and will be without the services of Henrik Zetterberg to start the series. It’s very possible that the Coyotes, behind Bryzgalov, could shut the Wings down long enough to squeak out a series upset.

4) Anaheim Ducks vs. 5) Nashville Predators (Nashville in 6)
Both of these teams enter the playoffs blazing hot. The Ducks have found the scoring touch, particularly Corey Perry who leads the league with 50 goals. The Predators are riding their stout defense and the stellar play of goalie Pekke Rinne who may finish 2nd in Vezina voting. If I had to choose whether offense or defense wins out in a playoff series like this, I’ve got to side with defense, though Nashville is still seeking its first series win in its history.

Eastern Conference
1) Washington Capitals vs. 8) New York Rangers (Washington in 5)
True, the Rangers have handled the Capitals in the regular season. The Rangers won three of the four games between the two, and two of those games weren’t even close. However, the Rangers will be without Ryan Callahan for the series, and the Capitals have gone 16-4 since their last game against New York, a 6-0 loss. Washington is more defensive minded than last year, I don’t expect them to suffer the same hiccups this time around.

2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. 7) Buffalo Sabres (Philadelphia in 6)
A lot of people are picking the Sabres in the upset. Buffalo has played extremely well down the stretch while the Flyers have been anything but, especially without Chris Pronger. The Sabres also have the rock-solid Ryan Miller in net, while the Flyers’ goalie situation is not without its questions. However, the Flyers will refocus now that the playoffs are here, and their offense, one of the best in the league, should eventually overwhelm Miller and Buffalo’s average defense.

3) Boston Bruins vs. 6) Montreal Canadiens (Boston in 5)
The last three meetings this season between these two teams couldn’t have been any worse for Montreal. After a wild game which included an 8-6 Boston win and fights everywhere, the Habs were crying for police intervention in their next game after Zdeno Chara pushed Max Pacioretty into a stanchion. Looking for retribution for that, Montreal promptly lost 7-0 in their last meeting. Now, Boston, whose goaltender Tim Thomas broke an NHL record for save percentage in a given year, should have little trouble dispatching a Montreal team whose sequel for playoff magic is dependent on one Carey Price. This is also perhaps the biggest rivalry in hockey right now, so perhaps Montreal will be much more ready to play than if they had gotten Pittsburgh or Philadelphia instead.

4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 5) Tampa Bay Lightning (Pittsburgh in 7)
Going into the year, this would’ve been a highlight series with all the stars present. While Tampa will be bringing out the likes of Lecavalier, St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, Pittsburgh’s best stars are out. Both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are injured and will not be playing in this series. However, Pittsburgh has played a very sound brand of hockey in their absence, and the vastly improved play of Marc-Andre Fleury (compared to the start of the year) could push Pittsburgh past the inexperienced Lightning.