By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
We’re two days away from start of the NHL playoffs and I’ve taken it upon myself to give you my honest, no-holds-barred first round playoff predictions.
Of course, predictions can come back to bite you but that’s the beauty of the thing. It’s always a great debate and I look forward to hearing your feedback however positive or negative.
Without further adieu, here are my opening round NHL playoff predictions for the Eastern Conference:
(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators
Already, plenty of hockey analysts are calling this a tricky match-up for the Rangers. The Senators are blessed with natural team speed. When the Rangers have looked their most vulnerable, it’s been against fast-skating teams who can beat them in transition.
Ottawa plays a very offensive style and have talented puck-moving defensemen who can cause damage on the powerplay in Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar. Karlsson, a Norris Trophy candidate scored 78 points and likes to jump into the rush.
The Senators won their season series against the Rangers 3-1, including their two most recent meetings but this isn’t a trend that will continue into the playoffs.
Pressure and physicality are the keys for the Rangers. They need to put pressure immediately on the Senators and take opposing goalie Craig Anderson out of his comfort zone. Ottawa slid down to the number eight seed by losing their final three regular season games. A resounding, early series victory by the Rangers will remind the Senators why they fell to eighth place.
I expect the Rangers’ blue-liners to be on their game and frustrate the likes of Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh have been the heart of a resolute Blueshirts’ defense. The Rangers gave up an Eastern Conference-best 187 goals against and were 5th overall in penalty kill percentage.
Ottawa doesn’t possess a great deal of scoring depth and the Rangers should have no problem out-scoring the Senators who gave up 240 goals during the regular season.
PREDICTION: Rangers defeat Senators in 5 games, 4-1.
(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals
The defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins have been dealt a difficult opening round match-up against the Capitals. As the regular season came to a close, Washington finally found their stride and importantly saw a healthy Nicklas Backstrom return to their lineup.
This series is all about ‘fire’ and ‘water.’ Some believe the Bruins are strong enough defensively to cool off the Capitals’ offensive fire-power. While others like myself feel that the Capitals’ scorers can overpower the Bruins and throw Tim Thomas off his game.
Washington won the season series 3-1 and earned an important late-season victory over the Bruins on March 29th at the TD Garden. They’re a team finally coming together at the right time.
Alexander Ovechkin struggled through the majority of the regular season but caught fire late in the year. Backstrom scored 44 points in 42 games, showing a glimpse of what he’s capable of producing if he can shake off any lingering concussion symptoms. Mike Green suffered through a sports hernia and poor production but we all know that he’s capable of being one of the league’s best powerplay quarterbacks when he’s on his game.
Special teams weren’t a huge strength for either team during the regular season but the Capitals have the potential to be very dangerous on the powerplay. I envision the Capitals winning this series as long as ‘goalie by default’ Braden Holtby isn’t overcome by the playoff atmosphere.
PREDICTION: Capitals upset Bruins in 7 games, 4-3.
(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils
The Devils were one of the most over-looked, quietly great teams in the NHL this season. They boast three 30 goal scorers in Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and David Clarkson but also have seven forwards who scored over 15 goals.
New Jersey were the best penalty killers in the entire league during the regular season and scored the most short-handed goals of all NHL clubs. The Panthers present the Devils’ penalty kill a significant challenge as they ranked 3rd in the Eastern Conference in powerplay percentage.
I see the Devils being too powerful offensively and too resolute defensively for the Panthers to have any chance in this series. Florida finished the season with a minus-24 in goal differential and do not have the experience of playing together for as many years as the Devils’ core stars.
PREDICTION: Devils sweep Panthers, 4-0.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers overachieved during the regular season but their luck is about to run out. Even though they were beset by many significant injuries, Philadelphia fought on bravely and only finished 5 points below the Penguins in the Eastern Conference standings.
Injuries though, will be the deciding factor in this series. If Danny Briere returns, it will be a boost for the Flyers but they’re already suffering far too many injuries to match-up against a very deep Penguins’ roster.
The loss of Chris Pronger for the season was a huge blow to the heart of the Flyers’ blue-line and fellow defenseman Andrej Messzaros will miss the entire series. Same goes for forward James van Riemsdyk.
Pittsburgh simply has far too much depth for the Flyers to handle. Having the luxury of using Jordan Staal as their third line center proves just how formidable the Penguins are. Staal might not receive the praise of Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby but he’s a big reason why the Penguins were 3rd-best in the NHL in penalty kill percentage and he also chipped in 5 powerplay goals.
Speaking of the Pens’ powerplay, James Neal scored 18 powerplay goals this season and enjoyed a career-best 40 goals in all situations. The Penguins aren’t a two-star team these days and are now in fact, a star-laden roster.
PREDICTION: Penguins defeat Flyers in 5 games, 4-1.
Look out for my Western Conference picks tomorrow and feel free to share your own predictions below. Send your tweets and feedback to @HartnettWFAN.