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Monzo Minor: NHL Conference Quarterfinals Preview

Roberto Luongo #1 of the Vancouver Canucks  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Roberto Luongo #1 of the Vancouver Canucks (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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By Brian Monzo
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The NHL postseason is about to face-off. The season goes by amazingly fast. I would say the two real surprises would be the Rangers being the top seed in the East and the St. Louis Blues seeding second in the West. We’ve taken an extensive look at the Rangers-Senators series, so let’s take a look and predict the rest of the matchups.

Eastern Conference

(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals
This series to me is the easiest one for me to pick personally. The defending Stanley Cup Champions have been streaky down the stretch here, but are clutch when it matters, while the Capitals are underachievers. Washington obviously has Alexander Ovechkin, who rebounded from a tough first half, finishing with 38 goals on the season, but goaltending will be the key to this one, and Boston seems to show up when needed in that department.

The Bruins are a mean team, led by Milan Lucic, who’s perhaps the best in the league at being a mean, physical, no-mercy type of player (and he can score too). 2011-12 was a breakout season for sophomore Tyler Seguin, scoring 29 goals and adding 48 assists. Patrice Bergeron has potentially the NHL’s best two-way game, and scored 64 points in the regular season. David Krejci is very crafty, and the pesky Andrew Marchand was very effective in the playoffs last season. Then there’s the big guy, defenseman and captain Zdeno Chara, who shoots the puck 100 miles per hour and is borderline impossible to matchup with. Goalie Tim Thomas has been inconsistent this season, but has a Stanley Cup ring and is unbeatable at times. This time of the year, Bruins fans hope he’s the Thomas we all saw last season.

The Capitals to me are not the team they once were. I know they have Ovechkin, but he isn’t the same player he was (though still very effective) and the supporting cast isn’t as impressive as they used to be. Alex Semin has a ton of talent, but motivation is a question mark for him. Defenseman Mike Green was the best offensive defenseman in the league, but injuries have slowed him down dramatically. They have a rookie coach with Dale Hunter, and matching up against the defending champions I think will be a huge challenge. Goaltending is also a major issue as Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth are both out with injuries. Rookie Braden Holtby will likely be the guy in at least the first round. Ouch.

I could see this one being a quick one. Bruins in four.

(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6)New Jersey Devils
This is a series where everyone is going to look at the team’s for their names and immediately make their pick. “Of course, the mighty Devils will beat the Florida Panthers in the playoffs!” “Are the Panthers even an NHL team?” The answers are maybe and yes.

I loved what the Panthers did last offseason. They needed to spend a ton of money to hit the salary cap basement, and they made smart moves with that money, as Tomas Fleishmann, Brian Campbell and Kris Versteeg all came in and had excellent seasons. The Panthers have a great power play with Campbell and 16-goal defenseman Jason Garrison leading the way. They have solid depth with veterans Mikael Samuelsson, Marcel Goc, Jerred Smithson and longtime Panther Stephen Weiss. Ed Jovanovski is still a physical presence as well on the blue line.  In net, Jose Theodore and former Devil Scott Clemmensen may share some time between the pipes. To me, this is a tough team, and there’s a reason they won their division. The Panthers aren’t an easy out.

The Devils had a solid rebounding year after missing the playoffs in 2010-11. Zach Parise returned from injury to score over 30 goals, Ilya Kovalchuk adjusted his style of play and will be a runner-up for the Hart Trophy and Patrik Elias had another good season. The keys for the Devils to move on will be the play of rookie sensation Adam Henrique and power forward David Clarkson. As a rookie, Henrique scored 51 points and Clarkson scored 30 goals for the first time in his career. Defensively, they are a tad thin, but the acquisition of Marek Zidlicky helped improve scoring from the blue line, and savvy veteran Bryce Salvador was as mean as ever. Rookie Adam Larsson struggled at times, but showed the obvious signs of a future top defenseman. What worries me about the Devils is the issue in goal. Martin Brodeur won 30 games again, and backup Johan Hedberg was solid when called up, but I worry about them in a big spot. Brodeur, who is without a doubt the best goalie of all time, isn’t 24 anymore. He isn’t even 34 anymore. I just don’t know if he has another run in the tank. Also worth noting is that coach Peter DeBoer coached the Panthers the last few seasons before being let go last season.

The Panthers had success against the Devils in the regular season, and I think it continues in postseason. Panthers in six.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers
If there’s one series outside of the two locals that I will lock myself into minute by minute, this is it. These two teams hate each other. Not just the fans and the players but management, owners and everyone.

I’ve been vocal on Twitter about the Penguins and their whining, like everyone else, and rightfully so. There’s NO doubting how talented of a team they are. We all know about Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Malkin is going to win the Hart Trophy and it seems like Crosby scores five points per game. Throw in 40-plus goal scorer James Neal and offensive depth with Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz as well as two-way center and 25-goal scorer Jordan Staal and that’s a lot to stop. With the Penguins, it starts and finishes with their two stars, but they are an offense first team. Defenseman Kris Letang scored 42 points in 51 games and tough guy Brooks Orpik isn’t fun to play against. (The names keep coming for the Penguins.) Steve Sullivan scored over 45 points and gritty penalty killer Richard Park is a huge asset. Marc-Andre Fleury won 42 games in net and has a Stanley Cup already. The Penguins just might be the best No .4 seed in postseason history. They are a tough team to stop, and for any team to stop them they are going to need to rattle them physically. Enter, the Flyers.

Is there a physical team that could eliminate the Penguins in the first round? I doubt the Penguins fear the Flyers, but I doubt this was the team they wanted to face in the first round. The Flyers have the third best player in the series. Claude Giroux broke out and scored 28 goals and added 65 assists for 93 points. The ageless Jaromir Jagr spurned the Penguins to sign with the Flyers in his return to the NHL, and now a motivated Jagr would love to help eliminate the Penguins. The 39-year-old forward scored 19 goals and had 54 points on the season. Those two are the Flyers’ best skilled players. Power forwards Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell will have to continue to be scoring threats along with their physical presence to have a chance. Hartnell scored 37 goals and Simmonds scored 28. If their  big bodies can do what they’ve shown they can do, they can beat the Penguins. Former Penguin Maxime Talbot signed with the Flyers in the offseason.  The gritty forward would love to put the Penguins out early. Ilya Bryzgalov turned it on late in net, and he will have to stay hot to get it done, which he shown an inability to do it when it matters, and now is when it really matters.

I think I’m the only one who thinks they can do it. Flyers in seven.

Western Conference

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings
There are fewer teams in the league that I’m more bored with than the Vancouver Canucks (despite their great record, and of course this season winning the President’s Trophy). I understand they reached to the Stanley Cup Final last season, and had every chance to win it, but they didn’t. They have great players like the Sedin brothers (although Daniel is out with a concussion) and Ryan Kesler and the “great” Roberto Luongo. Despite that, I’m not in love with them.

The L.A. Kings are a weird team. They made a ton of offseason moves and brought in Jeff Carter before the trade deadline. Anze Kopitar still remains their best forward, but they have still had a ton of issues scoring, and if not for Jonathan Quick’s possible Vezina Trophy season, they may have finished out of the playoffs. The Kings’ Drew Doughty remains the best defenseman on either team.

I try hard to, but I just can’t buy into the Canucks. The Kings have found ways to win low-scoring games, and this will be a low-scoring series. I see the Kings getting it done. Kings in six.

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks
A few weeks into the regular season, the Blues fired coach Davis Payne and replaced him with savvy veteran coach Ken Hitchcock. The Blues were struggling, but since the move the complexion of the team has completely changed and it’s shown on the ice. Hitchcock turned them into a forechecking, goals-against, stingy team that will be a force in the playoffs. Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak combined to lead the league in goals against. However, the Blues do struggle offensively. David Backes, David Perron and Andy McDonald won’t get anyone excited, but they make up for it by giving up very little.

The Sharks are the team we have been waiting for to finally get it done for what seems like forever. They have some scoring touch (Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau) and one of the best players in the league with Joe Thornton. If he can stay healthy, Marty Havlat could be a very talented offensive player. Aside from Dan Boyle and Brent Burns (who struggled all season), the Sharks have very little depth at the blue line. They have some respectable players like Douglas Murray and Jason Demers, but for the most part, they are thin in that area. Antti Niemi, despite winning the Cup with the Blackhawks, doesn’t overly impress me in net for the Sharks, especially in this spot, where any goal he gives up can lead to a loss.

I don’t see the Sharks getting it done here. Blues in five.

(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks
I’m not sure if there’s a team that has completely over-achieved like the Phoenix Coyotes have. They sort of bounced around all season, and when the smoke cleared, they won the Pacific Division. They seem to have just enough offense to win games, but I’m not sure if that’s enough to win a playoff series. Radim Vrbata, Shane Doan and Ray Whitney are their best offensive players. It’s safe to say that combo is not scaring the daylights out of anyone. Doan and Whitney are respectable players while Vrbata seemed to emerge as their best goal scorer. Defensively they have two players I love with Keith Yandle and rookie Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who scored 32 points as rookie. Perhaps the most intriguing part of their team is 38-win goaltender Mike Smith. Smith has a history of injuries, but when the Coyotes let Ilya Bryzgalov go to the Flyers, they took a shot with Smith, and it paid off. Smith finished the season with eight shutouts and a goals against average of 2.21.

The Chicago Blackhawks may be the complete opposite of the Coyotes. They have quite a few players who can bury the puck. However, the status of their captain, and best goal scorer, Jonathan Toews is in question as he recovers from a concussion. Even without Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane is still there, Marian Hossa had a great year and Dave Bolland seems to score in big spots. Their blue line features the Norris Trophy winning Duncan Keith, as well as the impressive youngster Nick Leddy and the reliable Brent Seabrook. Their issue is their goaltending. Whether it be Corey Crawford or Ray Emery in net, I’m not confident that either are capable of leading the Blackhawks to where they want to end up.

This is a coin toss. Blackhawks in seven.

(4) Nashville Predators vs. (6) Detroit Red Wings
This series to me will be the most boring out of the entire first round. The Predators have been in the playoffs seven times, and have twice been eliminated by the Red Wings, but I like what both teams bring to the game.

The Predators are a team with depth. Twenty players scored 10 or more points and Alexander Radulov, a late addition as he returned from a few years in Europe, had seven points in nine games. The Preds start and finish with their top big defensemen, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Suter, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, scored 46 points and Weber had 49. Up front, they have Radulov, who when he came back to the NHL instantly became their best forward, the always consistent Martin Erat and Mike Fisher. Patric Hornqvist’s 27 help as well. For the Preds, goalie Pekka Rinne has become their cult hero. The big man won 43 games this season (earning a long-term extension) and is in the Vezina Trophy conversation.

The Red Wings are the Red Wings. They again finish with over 100 points, don’t lose often at home and are still lead by Nicklas Lidstrom. At 41, Lidstrom continues to bring it. He has been out of the lineup with injuries late in the season, and that was the one time the team really struggled. Up front they still have Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, but it was the play of Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen and Jiri Hudler that allowed this team to be successful. Filppula scored 23 goals, Franzen scored 29 and Hudler scored 25. Along with Lidstrom, the hard-hitting Niklas Kronwall awaits anyone daring to enter his zone, and Ian White was perhaps their most consistent defenseman all season. In net, Jimmy Howard started the season with a ridiculous amount of games played and wins, but a groin injury sidelined him for a good portion late in the season.

I’ve learned a handful of times to never pick against the Red Wings. Red Wings in six.

Follow me on Twitter throughout the playoffs for updates, thoughts and more: BMonzoWFAN

What’s your predictions for the first round? Be heard in the comments below…