First Round Predictions; Eastern Conference

As you can probably tell by the discrepancy between lengths of posts dedicated to the two NHL conferences, I either a) don’t feel confident picking the east, b) don’t give much of a damn about the east, or c) both.  I feel like picking the top 4 seeds in the east is the easy way out, but it’s the way I see it going down so that’s what I’ve done.

Despite Tampa Bay’s offensive skill and surprising depth, their newfound solid goaltending from not just Dwayne Roloson, but shockingly also from Mike Smith, the fact that they are going up against a Pittsburgh team that will be without Evgeni Malkin and probably without Sidney Crosby for the entire series, and the fact that this Tampa offense is going after a goaltender in Marc Andre Fleury that I don’t really believe in, I’m still picking Pittsburgh to win this series because they look like a more playoff-ready team, and I don’t like Tampa Bay’s defensemen.  That series starts tonight at 7pm in Pittsburgh.  We’ll go Pittsburgh in 6 games.

Although the Chara / Pacioretty thing could give for pages and pages of analysis of the annual Boston v. Montreal playoff series, I just don’t feel like this one’s going to be as classic as some of the other ones in the past decade.  I think Boston is too big and physical for Montreal’s small forwards to fight through on a consistent enough basis to win four games.  Carey Price has been outstanding in net for the Habs, but it’s hard to say that you would give the goaltending edge to the team playing against the soon-to-be two-time Vezina winner, Michigan-born Tim Thomas.  So if I think that the B’s offense at least cancels with Montreal’s defense, the B’s goalie at least equals the Habs’ goalie, and Boston’s defense has a huge advantage over Montreal’s offense, then I’m going to pick Boston to win the series.  I think this one also gets wrapped up on the road in 6 games.

The trendy upset pick is without question Buffalo over Philadelphia.  While I understand why many pundits are going with that one, and I can’t say with total conviction that I don’t believe it will happen, I am certainly leaning toward Philadelphia in this one.  The argument for Buffalo is that the Sabres are trending upward, while Philly has been trending downward for some time now.  The Flyers once hot tandem of goalies (Bobrovsky and Boucher) has gone cold.  Chris Pronger is questionable to return from injury.  Like I said, I do understand the logic, but I’m still going with the playoff tested team that will have four of the seven games in its building.  Since I don’t want to predict that it will go seven games, I’ll continue the trend and go with Philly clinching in a Game 6 road victory at Buffalo.

The final eastern conference matchup is probably the one I’m most interested in watching.  It pits the top-seeded Washington Capitals against the only team that gained an imperative win over the weekend as far as playoff chasing went, the New York Rangers.  It has been argued that the Rangers are a nightmarish draw for Washington, as the Rangers not only took the Caps to seven games a couple years ago, but also have a strange penchant for beating them by 7 goals in hockey games.  Maybe it’s not as common as I think, but it seems that most times these teams play the final score sees New York with 6 or 7 goals.  This is obviously problematic, especially for a team with a trio of young goaltenders that have never really proven anything in the playoffs.  In fact, of the three (Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, Braden Holtby), only Varlamov has any playoff experience, and that came over the past two seasons that saw Washington go seven games in all three of its playoff series.  All three were played in Washington, but following the victory over New York in 2009, Varlamov was beaten badly at home by the Penguins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.  Then there was last year, where Varlamov played alright but was beaten by an unconscious Jaroslav Halak in the opposing crease.  For the third year in a row Washington will be starting the playoffs with a goalie other than Varlamov, as it has been confirmed that Michal Neuvirth will get the nod for Game 1 against the Rangers.  I personally would prefer Varlamov if I were the Caps, but I do actually like all three of their goalies.

Lastly, had Ryan Callahan not broken his leg blocking a shot a week ago, I really might take the Rangers to win four of these seven games, probably three of which by seven goals.  But Callahan is such an embodiment of the Rangers style of play that I feel that this is almost a “cut off the head and the body falls” situation.  I still like the Rangers’ young D men, and acknowledge that NYR has more guys like Callahan in Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle, along with some young and talented forwards like Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello to compliment scoring leaders Marian Gaborik and Vinny Prospal.  But in the end I just like what Washington has done to transform their game into a more defensive-minded style that is much more suited for playoff hockey.  The biggest thing that can stop them is if they go into “only move forward” mode like they did last year against Montreal.  What I mean is, other than Nicklas Backstrom, there was not a player on the Capitals that wanted to play a patient offensive game with any creativity.  Their shots were direct and easy for Halak to save.  If they only give Henrik Lundqvist one look, he will probably win at least a couple games on his own, and the Rangers would be at no disadvantage in this series.  But making predictions means taking a stand sometimes, and I’ve got to believe that part of Washington’s transformation includes a dedication to offensive patience and creativity amongst those forwards who have that ability.  Because the Rangers are such a bad home team, let’s go with Washington in 5 games, only dropping one of the first two.  There you have it, my eastern predictions, as bad as anyone else’s.

Playoffs start in 5 hours, cheers.

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