Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NHL playoff preview: setting up the first round

The NHL playoffs get rolling tonight, with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins going head-to-head in one early game, the Phoenix Coyotes and Detroit Red Wings facing off in another clash and the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals in a third. There are also a pair of late games, featuring the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks. There should be some excellent hockey on display tonight, and hopefully for much of the rest of the playoffs as well. Here's a preview of each first-round matchup, organized by game time (broadcast info from The 506):

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins - (5) Tampa Bay Lightning

First game: Wednesday, 7 p.m. Eastern, CBC (Ontario east, except Windsor)

This is an interesting one. The Penguins have a stronger defence and better goaltending (I'll happily take Marc-Andre Fleury over Dwayne Roloson), but their offence doesn't look as promising without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (at least to start). Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is deep up front with the likes of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, but their depth is an issue just about everywhere else. I like Pittsburgh in this one, but the Lightning shouldn't be an easy out.

Prediction: Penguins in six

(3) Detroit Red Wings - (6) Phoenix Coyotes

First game: Wednesday, 7 p.m. Eastern, CBC (Manitoba west, plus Windsor)

The Red Wings are trying to fight off age to make a deep playoff run yet again, while the Coyotes are looking to pick up their first playoff series win since the move to Phoenix. The biggest question for Detroit appears to be in net, where Jimmy Howard hasn't exactly been all that successful this season. Meanwhile, goaltending might be the Coyotes' best aspect, as Ilya Bryzgalov has had another good year in net for them. The Red Wings seem deeper up front (they'll need that depth thanks to an injury to Henrik Zetterberg) and on the blue line, but I like the Coyotes to pull this one out thanks to their goalie.

Prediction: Coyotes in seven

(1) Washington Capitals - (8) New York Rangers:

First game: 7:30 p.m. Eastern Wednesday, TSN

It's an interesting one-versus-eight matchup out East, as the Capitals have long been burdened with the tag of playoff underacheivers, while the Rangers have frequently struggled to even get to the postseason in recent years (falling to Philadelphia in a pre-playoff shootout last year). One of these teams is going to have to step up. For Washington, Alex Ovechkin hasn't been as dominant as usual this year, but they've still gotten solid performances from most of the rest of the lineup. They had a great regular season, and they don't look as top-heavy as they have in the past. Beating Henrik Lundqvist isn't going to be easy, but the Caps' offence is about more than just Ovechkin these days, and that should help them pull away here.

Prediction: Rangers in five

(1) Vancouver Canucks - (8) Chicago Blackhawks:

First game: 10 p.m. Eastern Wednesday, CBC

We've seen the Canucks fall to the Blackhawks plenty of times in the postseason, including last year, but this year's teams are considerably different. Chicago faced plenty of attrition from their Stanley Cup-winning nucleus, while the Canucks got stronger in the offseason and delivered by far the best regular-season performance in franchise history. The Blackhawks are still a formidable opponent, but they're not as dominant as they were, while the Canucks are a better and more balanced team than they used to be. The injuries they suffered and survived this year have tested their depth, and the results have generally been very positive. I think Vancouver gets a little revenge here. (Also, I'll be live-blogging Game Two of this one here Friday night, and possibly later games as well.)

Prediction: Canucks in six

(4) Anaheim Ducks - (5) Nashville Predators:

First game: 10:30 p.m. Eastern Wednesday, TSN

This matchup probably isn't going to get a lot of attention thanks to its overlap with Canucks - Blackhawks, as its teams are far less well-known. Still, there's plenty of interesting stuff here, particularly the battle between Anaheim's tremendous forward line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan and Nashville's superb goaltender, Pekka Rinne. The Predators also have a strong defence, led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and they're not going to prove an easy nut to crack. Still, I think offence will eventually prevail.

Prediction: Ducks in six

(3) Boston Bruins - (6) Montreal Canadiens:

First game: 7 p.m. Eastern Thursday, CBC

One of hockey's most storied rivalries gets another installment this year, and it's had plenty of recent fuel to throw on the fire thanks to the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty. On the ice, we should see an excellent goaltending duel between Tim Thomas and Carey Price. The main question is if the small-but-skilled Canadiens can hang with the bruising Bruins. Many don't seem to think so, but I like their chances; Montreal's coming into this series with a lot of emotion, and they've got more talent than people generally give them credit for. The NHL isn't all about big, hard-hitting guys any more; there's plenty of room for speed and skill, and I think the Canadiens have the edge there.

Prediction: Canadiens in seven

(2) Philadelphia Flyers - (7) Buffalo Sabres:

First game: 7:30 p.m. Eastern Thursday, TSN

This is another size-versus-speed matchup. The Flyers are still channeling their Broad Street Bullies era, and that emphasis on physical play took them to the Stanley Cup Final last season and a second seed this year. I'm not sure it's going to work against Buffalo, though. The Flyers do have plenty of offensive talent, including Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, but don't write off Buffalo either; they've got plenty of scoring depth, including Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis and Thomas Vanek. The goaltending matchup in particular is stacked in the Sabres' favour. They have the reliable Ryan Miller, while Philly is bouncing back and forth between Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher. That might be enough to give the Sabres the win, especially considering that Chris Pronger is battling injuries.

Prediction: Sabres in seven

(2) San Jose Sharks - (7) Los Angeles Kings:

First game: Thursday, 10 p.m. Eastern, TSN

The Battle of California (or two of the three California teams, at least)'s always interesting, but this looks a bit imbalanced on paper. The Sharks have long had a tough time in the playoffs, but they're coming into this year's postseason on a considerable hot streak. Meanwhile, the Kings slumped their way into the seven seed and haven't looked particularly impressive lately. They do have a good defence, though, led by Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick is a solid goalie. What worries me about the Kings is their lack of depth up front; they've struggled to score ever since Anze Kopitar got hurt, while San Jose can field the likes of Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. The Sharks just seem to have too much firepower for the Kings.

Prediction: Sharks in five

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