The wonderful time of the year is upon us now. The Stanley Cup playoffs are about to begin. Which means for me, it's only fitting that I preview the 8 quarterfinals series that will get the party started. Without further delay:
1 New York Rangers vs. 8 Ottawa Senators
The Rangers rise from 8th in the East last season to 1st this season can be ascribed to many factors, the least of which is Henrik Lundqvist's amazing goaltending. The Rangers also score more than they used to, but they still aren't a potent offensive force. But still, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and others should be able to score enough to give Henrik some breathing room. Ottawa is playing with house money in this series, but their overall lack of playoff experience besides the big guns in Alfredsson and Spezza will be problematic here. They are a very young team that has yet to deal with the real big lights, and the Rangers are fully ready for them. Ottawa is simply outmatched in this series.
Pick: Rangers in 5
2 Boston Bruins vs. 7 Washington Capitals
These Bruins are very good, but I'd wager to say they are not better than last year's cup winners. Tim Thomas has had his fair share of struggles this season, and they have been downright bad at points this season. Their opposites in Washington have failed to live up to the sky high expectations of their offseason spending spree, but that may take most of the pressure off of them. This team is still good enough to win the Cup, despite all of the issues during the regular season. The major issue for the Caps is in net, where Braden Holtby figures to get the bulk of the starts with their top 2 tenders on the shelf. He played in big games for Hershey of the AHL, but this series will be very different. Washington is playing very good hockey coming into this series, but the Bruins have too much to lose this early on in the dance.
Pick: Bruins in 6
3 Florida Panthers vs. 6 New Jersey Devils
The ultimate example of a team playing with house money is the Florida Panthers. Many expected this team to finish dead last in the East, leave alone win the Southeast. They are huge underdogs to a red-hot Devils team that has won 6 in a row coming into the postseason. The Devils seem to have the advantage in every phase of the game (just), but don't forget the Panthers have players that have won the Cup before, so they know what they are doing to coach up the young guys. The major issue for Florida is scoring, and since the Devils have a good D to match up with an inconsistent scoring base, the Devils should persevere here, but if the Panthers win, it won't be shocking.
Pick: Devils in 6
4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 5 Philadelphia Flyers
This series figures to be the most entertaining of the lot in the quarterfinals. In-state rivals who hate each other and would do anything to knock each other out of the postseason. Both teams are incomplete coming into the series, with the Pens dealing with Marc-Andre Fleury's tending problems of late, and the Flyers are pretty banged up. The big question for them is not on offense, but back in net (as usual), where it could be Sergei Bobrovsky's series or possibly Mr. Universe's series. One thing to note is that Ilya Bryzgalov has had his fair share of playoff struggles stemming from the last 2 campaigns in Phoenix, where he never got on the right track. The Penguins are mostly healthy up front, and that will help big time against the very physical Flyers. The Penguins will just eek out this series win, but it could set them up for a long run.
Pick: Penguins in 7
1 Vancouver Canucks vs. 8 LA Kings
The Canucks pretty quietly put together another very solid campaign which netted them another President's Trophy. They are so deep, even despite the injury issues. They may actually be deeper than last season with the additions of David Booth and Zack Kassian. LA is dealing with injuries, and a ton of weight on their shoulders for being an 8 seed. With all of their offensive players, you'd think they'd score more than they do, but of course not. The Sutter philosophy of defense puts the Kings on their heels and reliant on John Quick to retain his Vezina form. The Canucks are much better than that, despite not having Daniel Sedin for part of the series.
Pick: Canucks in 5
2 St. Louis Blues vs. 7 San Jose Sharks
The Blues orchestrated an amazing turn-around from last season, and even some ways into the season before Ken Hitchcock came along. He turned this team from an afterthought into a President's Trophy contender for most of the season. They have great depth along the roster, and are very solid in net, despite the injury issues for Brian Elliott. Not having him could become a problem for the Blues, who easily could have pulled tending switches easy without having major repercussions. The Sharks underachieved, but they still have most of the talent from last year's Western Conference Finals run in tow, which should win them one or two games in the series. Antti Niemi is the key for the Sharks in the series. If he plays well, the Sharks could pull the upset. If not, the Blues could walk. It will be a tough series, but the Blues should be able to eek it out.
Pick: Blues in 7
3 Phoenix Coyotes vs 6 Chicago Blackhawks
They aren't playing with house money in the same way that Florida is, but they are underdogs to the Hawks here. They would love to get past the 1st round hump that has blocked them for the last 2 seasons, but Chicago will make it tough. Not having their captain Jonathan Toews hurts, but he could return during the series, which will be a big boost. Phoenix will need to test Corey Crawford often in order to have a chance to win the series, and I'm not sure they have enough weapons on offense to do that. It will be a tough series to win for either team, but I think Chicago has more talent and experience to pull this out.
Pick: Hawks in 6
4 Nashville Predators vs. 5 Detroit Red Wings
Aside from FLA/NJ (I'm a Panthers fan), this is the series I am most interested in. I've always wanted to see the Predators take the next step, and this finally may be their time to do it. They have more scoring depth than ever, they have a lockdown defense corps, and also they have a Vezina candidate in net. So why could this be a bit of a minefield for them? The Wings are still very good. They have had their struggles in the latter portion of the season, but they are still the Wings, and they haven't exited the postseason in the first round since the 2006 Playoffs. But, I still think Nashville is going all in this season this year, and they are a better team than Detroit is this season, so they get the nod.
Pick: Nashville in 6