(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Detroit Red Wings
Don’t let the playoff seeding fool you, this is going to be a great matchup. The team that won’t go away easily versus the team that usually puts teams away easily. Chicago’s key edge is in depth, and as long as Crawford keeps playing the way he did in the regular season and the first round, Chicago should come out on top. They are evenly matched as skilled, possession teams with some super star talent and question marks in net. Chicago’s defense is notably stronger in this matchup. Also, expect the Blackhawks’ power play to come to life as it will be instrumental to moving on in this series. Detroit’s special teams are dangerous as well and don’t underestimate Detroit’s ability to find ways to win similar to Chicago. The return of Bolland and Helm to their respective teams will provide a boost, but even Helm’s return is questionable whereas Bolland will be in the lineup for game 1. The scariest aspect of Chicago is that they easily handled Minnesota without Toews or Kane scoring a goal. It’s tough to imagine both of them going two full rounds without finding the back of the net. And this will be the last time they play each other outside of future finals as Detroit will be changing conferences next season with the new league alignment plan.
Prediction: Chicago in 6
(5) Los Angeles Kings vs. (6) San Jose Sharks
Another balanced matchup in the West. Big, physical teams with strong goaltending, a handful of scorers, versatile defensive units, effective role players and a good mix of veteran leadership with youngsters. Oh and a division rivalry, too for added nastiness. The Sharks were great against the Canucks, but this series won’t be anywhere near as easy. They won’t be able to overpower the Kings and their depth can be matched. Not to mention the mess in net for Vancouver is the complete opposite of an in-form Jonathan Quick. Quick looks to be back to his Conn Smythe/Vezina candidate ways, stealing wins and earning shutouts in tight games. Again, the Kings look to be waking up at the right time, and seem poised for another deep playoff run. Is this yet another year where the Sharks look promising, but fall to the annual choke-fest that has haunted them for far too long?
Prediction: Los Angeles in 7
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (6) Ottawa Senators
I consider the Senators the biggest underdogs left in the playoffs. What’s worse is that they face a Penguins team that was already considered Cup favorites and have now been through a wakeup call after their series with the Islanders. The Penguins are too stacked, too deep, too star-studded to fall victim to the Senators. Ottawa needs Spezza to return but until he does, the top line of Alfredsson, Michalek and Turris will be expected to lead the way. Just looking at the Ottawa’s second line shows the vast difference in depth and star power. Latendresse, Zibanejad and Silfverberg vs Neal, Malkin and Iginla. That about sums up the series. Even with Fleury flopping, Vokoun has been a tremendous fill-in, getting the all-important W in his appearances without much flash or pizzazz. He is simply getting the job done. Even if Vokoun falters, it is possible Fleury wakes up and bounces back from his first round performance. Ottawa gets the edge in net, but as good as Anderson is, he won’t able to withstand attacks in waves from the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Iginla, Kunitz etc etc. Pittsburgh was built as a Cup-or-bust team this season and they should easily make it past the Senators.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 5
(4) Boston Bruins vs. (6) New York Rangers
The unbelievable come-from-behind win in game 7 over the Leafs just might’ve been that wake up call, that spark, the Bruins needed for a deep playoff run. However, they face a determined, balanced Rangers team who won their own game 7 to be here. Not to mention they are led by one of the best captains in the league and the world’s best goaltender. If there is any doubt about Lundqvist’s abilities, back-to-back shutouts in elimination games in the first round should settle that. The Rangers are built to be a scary team with their depth, list of big-name players and strong role players. And what’s scarier is that their star players aren’t really playing to their utmost ability, or so it seems. If just Nash, Richards and Clowe play to the level we have seen them play before, this series will be over relatively fast. Even without them exploding on offense, the likes of Stepan, Brassard, Zuccarello and Hagelin have been chipping in along with others in the bottom 6. The Rangers have a strong shot-blocking defense corps and that’s without Marc Staal, who is still day-to-day with his eye injury. Boston’s biggest problem has been their offense, but game 7 against the Leafs just might have woken up their top line. They need Lucic to play like he did in game 7 for success this round. They need Krejci to keep up his offensive pace and for Bergeron to continue providing key points and strong play on the faceoff dots. And they really need Seguin to wake up offensively. Jagr was able to create chances, but not as often or effectively as Boston would like, so they will look for him to step up his game as well. Rask will have a tall task facing Lundqvist, but we’ve seen that he is more than capable of putting up a fight. He needs the defense in front of him to continue blocking shots and using their big bodies to clear the crease, but the biggest thing he needs is for the offense to wake up. The Bruins can win the Cup this year, they are built for another good run at it, but the Rangers just might be this year’s Kings.
Prediction: New York Rangers in 6